Maybe it’s not ‘officially’ a drought, but it’s darn dry!

Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County OSU Extension

This 301st issue of the BEEF Cattle letter begins the 7th year of publication. As I look back to those early newsletters, the irony is that I see we were dealing with many of the same concerns then, as we are today – adding value to feeder calves, calf and fed prices that are not what we want them to be, and drought related concerns.

Over the weekend, one of the TV meteorologists said we weren’t officially in a drought because we haven’t been 30% or more below normal in precipitation for 3 months in a row. In addition to that, the Long Term Palmer index says that northern Ohio is only in “Moderate Drought” while the rest of us are “Near Normal.”

Well, let me tell you what “near normal” looks like in northwestern Fairfield County – not pretty! As I looked back at my rainfall data for this summer, I found I’d had less than 2.25 inches of rainfall over nearly the past 8 weeks. In fact, I’ve received even less rainfall during this June/July than I received during the ‘official’ drought of 1999 – you remember, the one that many are calling the worst around here in 50+ years. And, I know we’re not the only ones suffering. During a recent conference call among Ohio Ag Agents, it was speculated that as much as 30% of the corn crop in northwestern Ohio didn’t pollinate well enough to even be harvested for grain. Friends for that area have confirmed those concerns. Maybe it’s not “official” but, I can tell you that much of Ohio is suffering this summer, and we will be needing to look at alternatives for survival, yet again.

In recent weeks, many people are inquiring about many different alternatives for managing their cattle operations in addition to making the most of a dwindling and/or low quality feed supply. The best advice I can offer is to browse through OSU Extension’s previously published drought articles and consider many of the alternatives mentioned there. In the mean time, let me offer you my “2 cents worth” in response to some of the questions I’ve been getting in regard to managing this ‘drought”:

  • Should I seed an annual into my dormant hay field? No, if the hay field is dormant, a new seeding won’t grow either. When precipitation returns, the hay field with established perennial species will be more productive than an annual that’s seeded now when it’s too dry for it to sprout.
  • What about baling whole corn plants for winter feed? Don’t even consider it – there are better alternatives for drought damaged corn I’ll offer in a minute. At best, baling corn and maintaining the quality in storage is a challenge.
  • Baling soybeans should be easier – how about that? Probably not – very rarely are soybeans so poor (even in a drought) that you can’t harvest them, sell the grain for $5+ a bushel, and buy more feed with that money than baling soybeans will yield. Again there are better alternatives, and soybeans are hard to bale, and store, and feed correctly.
  • Pasture management – we always try to leave 4 inches of grass in the pasture, but we need the feed now! – Is that still a good idea? If pasture growth is stopped, definitely pull the cattle off and feed harvested feed. Leaving them out there will not make the grass grow. And, if you leave a little top growth now, the grass will recover much more quickly when it does rain. The top growth will keep the plant’s roots cooler by shading, and also capture whatever dew or light rain fall that you do receive.
  • How can we early wean calves and still get 205-day weights for our herd records? Confirm this with your respective breed association, but the timing of when calves are pulled from the cow shouldn’t have anything to do with your 205 weight records as long as all the calves remain contemporaries (all managed the same).
  • We are seeing some cows coming back into heat. Is this HOT weather causing abortions? Hot weather is one of many stresses that can cause early embryo abortions. It’s likely a combination of things, including the weather. I talked in the past about how earlier born calves typically are more profitable for a variety of reasons. This might be one more reason to move breeding season earlier into the year.
  • Will farmers be able to salvage their crop as a forage IF they have crop insurance or some other drought assistance? Yes, they may harvest it any way they choose regardless of their crop insurance or yield status. And, this becomes an EXCELLENT feed alternative! It goes something like this: When one is ready to harvest corn for silage, if they believe they may have a low yield claim, the adjuster will come out and estimate the grain yield. Then the producer can proceed and harvest the silage. The estimated yield will be what is used to determine if the corn grower has a claim. If cattlemen needing supplemental feed have neighbors with corn they are willing to sell ‘standing in the field’ consideration should be given to having it harvested as silage and bagged (in plastic) at the farm. Bagging is an excellent alternative for individuals who don’t have silos or bunkers. As long as the bags are secured from rodents, the silage will keep almost indefinitely. One Fairfield County cattleman harvested corn silage in the Fall of 1998 but didn’t feed it all that Winter. When the drought came in the summer of 1999, he pulled his cows off pasture in July and August and opened a corn silage bag. When rainfall returned that fall, his pastures recovered much more quickly, and were significantly more productive than others’ in the County that were allowed to be grazed down to the soil. Manage for the long haul – don’t destroy a productive pasture by overgrazing just to survive the short term! For the short term, if limited amounts of hay is available, consider simply feeding shelled corn – one pound of corn can replace 2 pounds of hay.