Dwindling hay supplies. Poor-quality hay. Ponds drying up. University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Elizabeth Picking has seen it all in southwest Missouri this summer.
Feeding cattle has been a challenge as the effects of severe drought take hold across much of the southern part of the state. But dry conditions are not out of the ordinary for the region.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Missouri has seen droughts of level D1 or higher in 20 of the past 23 years. In 10 of those years, parts of Missouri experienced D3 or extreme drought.
Two of the past 23 years — 2012 and 2018 — saw D4 or exceptional drought. The worst was 2012, when almost all of Missouri experienced D3 or D4 drought.
With limited forage for grazing, many farmers have already resorted to supplementing with hay. But hay supply is also tight, and many producers are likely paying a higher price when they find it.
According to the USDA Missouri Direct Hay Report, large round bales of grass mix hay runs from fair quality at $75 per bale up to $150 for premium grass hay. Farmers searching for quality alfalfa are paying $100 to $180 per large round bale.
Searching for options
With limited grass and higher hay prices, Picking offers a few suggestions for cattle producers who are faced with tough choices when it comes to cattle management:
Feed efficiently. This involves testing forages and calculating the cost of energy and protein to get the best value and results. Most county Extension centers have hay sampling probes that producers can borrow for taking hay samples to test quality or nitrate content. Some offices have moisture and temperature probes for avoiding fires caused by hay that is too wet. Send samples to a laboratory certified by the National Hay Testing Association.
Wean calves. Picking says farmers should consider weaning older calves when short on feed, supplementing feed during critical periods and culling nonproducers.
Focus on cows. Reviewing forage quality and dry matter intake during growth and reproductive stages helps producers determine needs. Cows need energy-producing supplement when hay supplies are low. Picking suggests a review of crude protein and total digestible nutrient percentages.
Add grain. Cattle producers can stretch hay supplies by substituting 1 pound of grain to replace 2-3 pounds of hay, Picking says. Cattle need at least 0.5% of their body weight in dry matter of forage per day. Cattle will initially appear gaunt and hungry, but will adapt within two to three weeks, Picking says.
Make room for minerals. One alternative is tubs of supplemental protein and minerals. They vary widely in price, contents and daily consumption. Moisture-dense blocks are usually cheaper than cooked tubs, Picking notes, but may be more expensive per unit of nutrient. Blocks are easier to handle than cooked tubs, weighing 30-35 pounds rather than 100-500 pounds and are best suited to small herds, she adds.
Supply salt. Salt can limit feed intake. Cattle can eat about 0.1 pound of salt per 100 pounds of body weight per day. Mix with commodity feed to limit intake if using a free choice feeder. Cattle can overeat, Picking adds, so take care to limit supplies. Also, salt increases water needs, and this can be a problem when ponds run dry.
Boost hay. Another option is to add liquid feed on low-quality hay. This improves palatability, reduces dustiness and gives cows extra protein and energy. Limit urea to no more than half of the daily protein source.
Help with drought recovery
MU Extension will hold livestock drought recovery meetings throughout August.
The drought will continue to affect cattle operation grazing and feed resources as farmers go into the fall and winter, says Patrick Davis, MU Extension livestock specialist.
Extension specialists will share information on managing through drought for both productivity and profitability of a cattle operation. All meetings are free:
Aug. 10. MU Wurdack Farm, Cook Station, 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Aug. 11. Pulaski County Court House, Waynesville, 6 to 8 p.m.
Aug. 17. Sac River Cowboy Church, Springfield, 8:30 to 11:45 a.m.
Aug. 17. MU Southwest Research, Extension and Education Center, Mount Vernon, 2 to 5:15 p.m.
Aug. 19. MU Extension Center in Laclede County, Lebanon, 12:30 to 4:15 p.m.
Aug. 22. Vernon County Fairgrounds Centennial Hall, 12:30 to 5 p.m.
For details and registration, visit mizzou.us/droughtevents.
The University of Missouri Extension contributed to this article.