Widespread drought conditions have stressed summer forages, limiting and in many places stopping growth in pastures and hayfields. Livestock producers are in a tough spot as the hot months roll on.
University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Gene Schmitz says his area has been dealing with dry conditions for a while.
“Right around here, they’ve been in the bullseye the longest,” he says. “Really going back about a year.”
Schmitz is based in Pettis County and covers multiple counties in west central Missouri. Much of the region has moved into level 4 “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Level 4 is the highest level.
“It’s really ugly,” Schmitz says.
He says many producers by mid-July had written off their corn crop as a failure and are looking to chop corn for silage to help make up for the dramatic reductions in pasture and hayfield productivity. He says a late-July rain was welcomed, but it will take more to get grass growing again.
“Nothing’s growing back,” he says.
Schmitz recommends producers stretch feed supplies by reducing hay waste. Cone-shaped feeders with sheeting around the bottom providing the largest reduction, he says. Producers can also look to alternatives such as grain and grain by-product feeds. Crop residue or a failed corn crop can also provide forage options, and producers can look to cull older or open cattle.
Schmitz also says producers should be thinking about how to get the most out of fall growth, should rains arrive.
“Be ready to apply nitrogen in August to promote fall tall fescue growth provided rains return,” he says. “Give those pastures rest to allow fall growth to accumulate.”
In Illinois, producers continue to battle forage shortages as well. University of Illinois Extension educator Teresa Steckler is based at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in southern Illinois and says a stretch of no measurable rain between early June and mid-July put pastures in a bad spot.
“This summer (pastures) have been a little dismal,” she says.
The area did receive some rains in mid-to-late July.
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“They’re starting to spring back just a little bit,” Steckler says.
She says the hay crops in the area have been half to two-thirds of normal this year, part of a six-year stretch of weather that has either been poor in the spring, fall or both, making it tough for forages to keep up. She knows some area producers who have already been feeding hay.
“The pastures are basically down to nothing,” Steckler says.
She is hopeful the recent rains might give producers the ability to have a decent third hay cutting. The current forecast is hot and mostly dry.
“For a while, all the rains went south or north of us,” she says.
Steckler recommends producers be sourcing their hay right now if they can find any and hunting any available grazing ground to lease. She says the focus is on trying to get the main pastures to recover.
“We have to get those primary pastures back in shape,” Steckler says.
She says even dividing a pasture into two or three parts can give areas a little time to recover and avoid overgrazing. She also says controlling weeds in pastures can help maximize productivity.
For many producers, the 2023 drought comes on the heels of a dry fall last year.
“These guys could use a break,” Steckler says.
Iowa State University beef nutrition specialist Beth Reynolds says conditions vary in her central Iowa area, although not many are average or better.
“Pastures in my immediate area look better than mid-June expectations,” says Reynolds, who is based in Warren County. “That is primarily due to July rains, and on average, mild summer temperatures. However, by the time rain came, cool season grasses were past being fully headed out, and any growth has been slow, as expected for cool seasons. At this point, grazing pressure is starting to show, even in rotationally grazed systems.”
She says other parts of Iowa have even tougher forage conditions, with many producers already feeding hay to provide adequate rest for pastures. The first hay cutting in her area was lower than average, although the second was better than expected. Hay is expensive, and Reynolds recommends pricing corn silage and looking to seed late-summer cover crops and other forages to keep costs down.
Looking ahead, Reynolds says fall forage growth is needed, although the pastures are coming from a stressed position.
“We are currently in a hot and dry spell, but the big question will be if August and September have enough moisture to get decent fall growth out of the cool season grasses,” she says. “The pastures overgrazed this spring will struggle to recover for fall growth.”