Hay shortage here has ag producers facing tough decisions, praying for rain
Ozark County farmers – and other ag producers around the state – are having a hard time finding hay to buy to feed their livestock during the coming winter.
Randy Wiedmeier, livestock specialist in the Ozark County Extension office, said area producers are becoming worried about the situation. “I’m very concerned there will be a hay shortage this year,” he said.
Wiedmeier outlined how the problem has arisen: Typically, depending on their own situation and weather conditions, most livestock owners here don’t start feeding winter hay “until around Thanksgiving at the earliest,” Wiedmeier said. But last fall was very dry, and pastures dried up, he said. As a result, many producers began feeding their livestock hay earlier than usual.
“Some had to start at the end of September because they ran out of forage,” he said. “I had guys who had two years of stored hay, and they used it up in one season.”
After the dry autumn, “spring has been kind of dry too,” he said. Then came probably the biggest problems: “April was one of the coldest on record, and the fescue – the main forage here – didn’t get a good start. Then May turned out to be one of the hottest on record. So it stressed our forage plants.”
As a result, this summer’s first cutting of hay, which farmers have been working on recently, “is going to be meager, from what I’m hearing from everyone I’ve talked to,” Wiedmeier said. “You see bales out there in the fields. But if you saw five or six bales per acre in that field a couple of years ago, this year there may be only two or three bales per acre. That’s the concern.”
Producers who’ve had plenty of hay to sell in past years have none to spare this year.
“The hope is that we get some timely rains and good weather, and a lot of people will get a second cutting later,” Wiedmeier said. “No matter how advanced we get in agriculture, we’re still dependent on Mother Nature.”
He added that the Extension office is willing to operate as a “clearinghouse” for anyone who does have hay to sell – and those seeking to buy it. He recently heard from fellow Extension specialist Tim Schnakenberg in Stone County, who “mentioned that someone had hay for sale in the West Plains area. Our office managers are keeping a running list of people who have hay for sale,” he said. But he also noted, “It’s a very short list.”
Producers who have hay to sale can call the Extension office at 417-679-3525.
Grazing school advantages
Meanwhile, said Wiedmeier, “we’re in grazing school season now, and at the Douglas-Ozark County school that just finished in Squires, the point was brought out that, if you manage your pastures properly, you’ll make it through droughts much better than if you don’t. NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] showed that if you keep your pastures in good condition by using rotation, then when we do get rain it’ll stay on the pasture instead of running off. They demonstrated that with rainfall simulation – and everyone had gaping jaws when they looked at that thing.”
The grazing schools “have been an outstanding Extension program that has had a major impact,” Wied-meier said. “We do 35 schools around the state. The closest state to that is Tennessee or Kentucky, where they do five or six.”
The schools are usually well-attended, in part because they’re required if landowners want to receive cost-share funds from the Soil and Water Conservation Department or the NRCS. “There’s a financial incentive,” he said. “What this is all about is conserving natural resources. The government may pay up to 75 percent of the cost of changing over your farm to rotate pasture. And it really isn’t that difficult to do. Of course, dealing with the government, you may have to wait – the funds are first come, first serve. But it really has had a major impact here.”
The next grazing schools in the area will be held July 17-18 in Houston and Oct. 9-11 in West Plains. Call the Extension office for details.
Farmers who can’t find hay to feed their cattle this coming winter may face the difficult decision of whether to cull their cow-calf herds. A recent news release from Extension beef nutrition specialist Eric Bailey offers suggestions for how farmers can “give careful thought to which grass eaters go first” when the “forage outlook for summer and fall, combined with winter feeding,” isn’t good.
The first cut, he said, is to sell “poor performers,” mainly “cows not pregnant or nursing.”
Next, he said, “cull lactating cows with bad disposition, bad eyes, bad feet or bad udders ... or poor-doing calves.”
The goal, Bailey said, is to “keep the best genetics in the herd as long as feasible.”
Another strategy is “early weaning and selling calves ... in spite of revenue loss,” he said. “That provides needed cash but can hurt annual income.”
Bailey points out that “in typical years, two-thirds of forage yield comes in spring growth. One-third comes in fall growth.” He cautions that “even if rains return, forage yields in 2018 will likely be below normal. Farmers already see low yields following harsh winter and spring grazing seasons.”
He noted that hay growth this year also falls well below normal, and “most producers already face hay shortages. Many have no reserves.”
As a result, winter feed will be a “big, long-term problem,” he said.
In light of these dire prospects, “many farms face severe destocking,” he said, advising producers to “initially consider a 25 percent cut.” Then, “if normal rains don’t return, consider another 25 percent later.”
Reducing the herd by half before fall forage growth begins “may allow stockpiling pastures for winter grazing,” which can cut the need to buy feed. But he warned that that scenario depends on rainfall.
In his news release, Bailey’s main advice is “to plan downsizing” and to keep in mind that improving herd management, such as establishing shorter breeding seasons instead of having year-round calving, can be a benefit.
The possible benefit of drought-induced culling is that “it forces decisions and management,” Bailey said.
He offers this final thought: “Producers who last longest in cow-calf businesses are not those who make the most money in good years. They are those who lose the least in bad years.”