Farmers look for alternatives during severe drought
As the area saw some precipitation Monday evening, farmers' concerns about their fields and livestock herds continue to grow each day.
By Amanda Gire
Aurora Advertiser - Aurora, MO
By Amanda Gire
Updated Aug. 15, 2012 @ 1:19 pm
By Amanda Gire
Updated Aug. 15, 2012 @ 1:19 pm
» Social News
As the area saw some precipitation Monday evening, farmers' concerns about their fields and livestock herds continue to grow each day. The Palmer Drought Severity Index shows the western Ozarks in Missouri is still in need of 12.34 inches of rain to end the drought. The University of Missouri Extension Office in Barry County offered farmers ways to feed their livestock during the dry conditions, instead of selling off herds. “The drought has taken a major toll on beef and dairy farms in the area. High nitrates and short hay supplies will continue to plague these farms as we go into winter. Farmers need to know the precautions to take and take extra steps to stretch their feed supplies.” said Tim Schnakenberg, an agronomy specialist with University of Missouri Extension based in Galena. Schnakenberg was joined by Eldon Cole, livestock specialist and Tony Rickard, dairy specialist during the drought tour, which was held on Weaver Forest's farm in Barry County. Schnakenberg said the rainfall amounts coupled with the hottest temperatures from May to July provided the third warmest on record and the driest since 1936. Cole opened the program discussing ways to survive the drought as a livestock operation. He said owners should evaluate culling cows cautiously, because replacements could be pricey in the long run. If an owner can hold on to calves a little longer into the season, the owner may profit more. In fact, Cole suggested livestock operators consider buying cattle, but that goes hand-in-hand with talking with a lender about the financial risk level. Livestock owners should also monitor their feed supply -- purchasing by weight, not looks, evaluate forage feeding systems and inventory feed supply -- counting bales, knowing weights, etc. Operators should monitor their herds through parasite checks, cow examinations, bull breeding soundness exams, etc. Cole also said they should calculate the cost per animal per day and sell extra horses in order to keep a thriving livestock operation. Farmers typically expect weaned calves to gain an average of two pounds per day, but Cole said that during drought conditions, farmer might consider expecting a little less weight gains. He also said farmers should remember calves born this fall and next year will be affected by this year's weather, nutrition, etc. Schnakenberg said the drought conditions resulted in short forage inventories, weakened stands, thin pastures and concerns for weeds in the thin stands next year. He said producers can use stand loss as an opportunity to improve their forages, including thickening up a stand with desirable forages, including more legumes, converting up to 25 percent to warm-season grasses, developing a simple rotational grazing program and purchasing a reserve supply of feed when prices are favorable. Options for emergency forages in the late summer/early fall include turnips, cereal, rye, oats, tritiale, wheat and annual ryegrass. Schnakenberg said that on good fescue stands, applying nitrogen in August and stockpiling the grass is the most affordable option, but farmers should be cautious that interseeding forages into stands with low fertility can be disasterous. Low fertility can be the reason fescue stands fail in the first place. Short term solutions to feeding concerns include: • Oats – quickest out of the ground; fall growth only, then dies out in winter; usually good tonnage produced; poor tolerance to overgrazing; slower regrowth than other cereals • Cereal Rye – excellent fall tonnage and quality, heads out early in the spring and quality is compromised, quick establishment, good regrowth potential after grazing • Triticale – genetic cross between cereal rye and wheat, a good compromise between rye and wheat regarding tonnage and quality, does not regrow after a grazing as well as rye • Stockpiled fescue – apply nitrogen in August and stay off the pasture until November/December. Schnakenberg said this option doesn't produce short-term forage as well but is the most cost-effective practice for winter-feeding. Strip grazing will best ration the forage. Schnakenberg said some long-term solutions to stand loss and to prevent a grass shortage again include: • overseed clover (fall or early spring) or lespedeza (spring only) • thicken up the thin stands of fescue (cool season grasses) • convert to warm-season grass next year • insure fertility is up to par • controlled grazing – strip-grazing improves utilization of forages • incorporate annual ryegrass into thin fescue stands Forest utilizes ryegrass in his pastures. Schnakenberg warned that ryegrass is an invasive crop and shouldn't be used near fields intended for wheat for grain, fescue seed production or commercial hay where ryegrass is not desired. “Ryegrass will spread wherever you put it,” Forest said. Schnakenberg also suggested establishing a legume. Adding clover or lespedeza into pastures is one of the simplest approaches to thickening a stand, he said. A goal of 25-30 percent legume component would be ideal for most producers. Lespedeza tolerates a drought better than clover and provides most of its growth after late June. Drought-stricken forages that accumulate nitrates can kill grazing livestock, quickly, warns a University of Missouri plant scientist. “We're getting reports of cattle dying,” says Rob Kallenbach, MU Extension forage specialist. “As hot weather without rain continues, we expect to hear of more death losses. It happens at the start of every drought.” Large grasses, such as corn, sorghum and sudangrass hybrids, are most often the cause of problems, Kallenbach. Many plants, even ryegrass and fescue, can accumulate nitrates when soil moisture becomes short. Johnsongrass and other common weeds can be deadly, also. Nitrogen is essential for forage and grain-crop production. Nitrates are in the plants all the time, creating normal growth. Nitrogen picked up by plant roots from the soil moves up into the plant. Eventually the plant stores that energy in the seed heads as protein. Nitrates are converted into amino acids, which are building blocks for plant proteins. Protein is an essential part of animal diets. Lack of moisture stops the flow of nitrates up the plant and the conversion to protein. The roots continue to bring nitrogen into the plant, where it accumulates first in the stalks. Too much unconverted nitrate can become toxic. In a drought, producers needing forage turn cows to graze corn, sorghum or other large grasses. Usually the only time a farmer grazes corn would be when it is obvious the plant will not make ears of corn for grain harvest. Grazing is considered when drought stops conversion of nitrate into protein. That's when deadly trouble occurs. Cornstalks and other plants can be given a quick test for nitrates. A few drops of test solution on a split stalk turn deep blue when high levels of nitrate are present. Most MU Extension county offices have test kits to provide quick nitrate checks. This test gives only rough indications of potential problems. It's a warning. A more accurate, quantitative test must be done in a laboratory, but that takes time. The lab test works best on stored forages such as bales, balage or silage. Kallenbach said corn can be chopped and fed to cow herds. That is being done already in dry areas of southern Missouri. “That works well—if it is done quickly,” Kallenbach said. The worst thing is to chop a load of cornstalks, then let the forage sit on the feed wagon overnight. In that time, the deadly nitrates convert into even deadlier nitrites. “If you feed a load of high-nitrite corn to your cattle in the morning, by noon you can be out of the cattle business,” he said. Nitrites tie up the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood hemoglobin. Without oxygen, the cow suffocates. At even low levels of nitrate, pregnant cows can lose their calves. Grazing drought-stressed cornstalks is safer than chopping, if managed right. Cows prefer eating corn leaves first. Usually, leaves have less nitrate content than stalks. Management-intensive grazing works when a strip of a cornfield is fenced off with an electric wire. When the herd eats all of the leaves, but before they start eating nitrate-rich cornstalks, the cows are moved to a new grazing paddock. Even after rains come, the water won't clear up problems overnight. It takes the plant at least five days to convert nitrate to safer levels of amino acids. If there are no ears of corn on the standing stalks, conversion takes longer. When cattle run out of pasture, farmers turn to alternative forages, Kallenbach said. Slow down and make a quick nitrate test to ensure safety of the herd. It is so long between severe droughts that people forget lessons learned in the last drought.