For most of southern Missouri and University of Missouri Extension field specialist Tim Schnakenberg, the hay season is over. The only thing left to harvest is Johnson’s grass and some corn silage.
“Unless we get some kind of fall cut, our hay crop is pretty much done,” he said.
These fall cuttings could include southern grass, millet, cereal rye or triticale if fields can be sown in early September.
If planted in late August, “winter oats are a good option for a November 1 harvest,” Schnakenberg said. “If we can grow this crop, get some moisture, maybe we’ll get a chance to get one last crop.”
If a producer is willing to take the risk, it can be done.
As with most farming activities, a grower’s greatest risk is usually with Mother Nature.
Some areas have recently received decent rainfall and even flooding has occurred. Schnakenberg cautions against celebrating these moisture gains in pastures too early. Prussic acid toxicity and nitrate poisoning are potential risks when taking livestock out to pastures that have experienced rainfall.
“My understanding is that prussic acid toxicity occurs when (grass) is short and still lush but not growing quickly,” he said. “We worry about poisonous plants in dry conditions.”
Schnakenberg said most people won’t have any problems, but testing these grasses through a local extension office would be a wise safety measure.
Extension offers drought survival skills
Another sensible step would be to take advantage of the information that local extension offices have to offer. Schnakenberg said his office will continue to hold drought meetings across the state.
“A 4-inch rain doesn’t actually soak up more than an inch, so a lot of it probably ran off,” he said. “So everything we’re going to talk about still applies.”
Extension uses these meetings to educate producers about hay quality issues, the price of stored fodder, and alternative feeds.
“There may be people feeding silage that aren’t used to it,” Schnakenberg said.
Managing cattle herds during a drought is also part of the discussion.
Culling a herd may not be necessary, he said, if early weaning works for an operation.
Mizzou economists believe that the country’s livestock stock will reach a very low level in the near future, which makes the market potential very positive.
Although these meetings offer some strategies, many producers are in survival mode.
“If there’s a way for someone to get food to pass (fall), at least it might pay off to hang on to the cows for as long as they can,” Schnakenberg said.
Many breeders are simply trying to survive the summer and get through the winter.
“Some of them are feeding right now,” Schnakenberg said. “They feel like the hay crop has been cut short this year, so they’re going to have a hard time getting through the winter. They are already worried about it.
This is where the quality of the hay is the main factor in profit and loss.
“Right now, I think people need to test their hay to have it analyzed to find out what their needs are,” Schnakenberg said. To this end, it works closely with the Hay Show at the Ozark Empire Fair, Springfield, Missouri.
“I get involved because it’s a good way to help educate people about forage quality,” he says. Even in a dry year, the show saw 45 entries while in 2021 there were 31. Schnakenberg said a dry hay sample of alfalfa orchard grass had relative forage quality of 41, which is exceptional given the growing season weather and extremely low rainfall.
“Overall,” he said, “I would say the quality of pulses was down, but grasses were exceptionally up.” He also sees the Hay Show as an educational opportunity, adding “a little healthy competition is a good way to help teach”.
As a certain breed of livestock may work best for certain producers, feeding methods also depend on what works best for the producer. Some producers prefer to feed baled hay, some prefer silage, and others prefer to retain winter pasture to graze their livestock.
Schnakenberg believes that if it works for a farm, grazing is the path to profit.
He cites recent hay costs to be around $150 a ton. Calculating the cost of feeding hay and factoring in typical feed losses, he said, it can cost upwards of $3 per 1,200-pound lactating cow per day.
On the other hand, starting in December and grazing that same cow on a rented fall pasture that has been treated with nitrogen would cost closer to $1.30 per day.
“It’s even like using high-priced nitrogen fertilizers to stock tall fescue,” Schnakenberg said.
“It’s a competitive advantage that people in the fescue belt have with fescue as their primary food source.”