Unable to make hay, cattle farmers look for ways to get through winter

Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Cattle fed on corn stalk forage Monday on Glen Birk's farm near Jackson. This is the first year that Birk has bailed corn stalks for feeding. He supplements the forage with commercial protein and alfalfa hay. Birk thinks he can make it through the winter without having to sell off any of his herd, although he said the cattle are leaner than in most years.
(Kit Doyle)
kdoyle@semissourian.com

The drought conditions that hampered Southeast Missouri this summer have been gone for weeks. But for livestock producers, the effect of that drought, coupled with the late freeze in April, will be felt throughout the coming winter.

The spring freeze and the subsequent summer drought dramatically slowed the growth of pasture grasses used to make hay -- an important feed during the winter months when pasture grass is scarce. Now a local hay shortage has some livestock producers selling off cattle early or turning to alternative feed sources like corn stalks to keep their animals fed through the winter.

Jackson area livestock producer Glen Birk said his 2007 hay crop was about half the size of normal. And in normal years, cattle would be fed that hay crop starting around this time of year. But this year, Birk said he had to start feeding hay in August, because the drought destroyed his pasture grasses. His hay supply is much shorter than it should be in late November, and there's plenty of cold weather ahead.

The bad spring and summer is forcing local producers to try different approaches to keeping herds fed this winter.

Birk is feeding his cattle bales of corn stalks supplemented with a periodic, small alfalfa bale every few days and some protein and mineral supplements.

Some other producers are selling off parts of their herds. Millersville producer Mike Kasten said he had to sell about 20 percent of his breeding hheifersHe had hoped to keep those cattle longer, but said he had to adjust his herd size to the amount of food he has and the economics of providing more.

Roger Eakins, a livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension based in Jackson, said the situation is becoming "pretty critical."

"I know a lot of producers that have already culled their cow herds as much as they could cull it," Eakins said.

The USDA has authorized drought assistance loans for row crop producers in 22 Southeast Missouri counties, but that assistance doesn't apply to cattle farmers. However the Missouri Department of Agriculture keeps a directory of hay producers around the state on its Web site, www.mda.mo.gov, and the Missouri Farm Service Agency is taking sign-ups for Livestock Assistance and Livestock Indemnity Programs to assist with feed and livestock losses.

Hay prices per bale locally are about twice the normal $25 range for large round bales, Eakins said. Alternative feeding methods, like those Birk is trying, are cheaper than hay. But most other feeds are lower in nutrients than hay, and corn stalks and some other alternatives carry the danger of nitrate poisoning.

Eakins said the Jackson extension office is giving free nitrate tests of corn stalks for local producers. Many farmers have used the service, he said.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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