Farmers seek forage options as drought cuts grass growth

Corn in Beginning Stages of Drought

Shortage of cattle forage is forcing some Ozark herd owners to chop trees to feed leaves. That method was used in big droughts of the 1930s and 1950s.

Damage comes from more than an intense drought, said Craig Roberts, University of Missouri forage specialist in a weekly teleconference. Regional extension specialists update state staff on current problems.

Roberts says forage shortages date from the dry weather last fall. Pastures were short then and hay harvest low. When bales ran out, herd owners turned cows into pastures that had not grown many leaves. Winter overgrazing grubbed pastures down, eating tillers for regrowth.  Heat and lack of rain prevent pasture recovery. Many hayfields come up 75 percent below normal, Roberts said. The problems grow.

Grass that grew this spring is long on seed stalks and short on leaves. When baled for hay, that grass can be low-energy fiber, not nutrition. It may also be toxic.  “This is a year for ammoniation,” Roberts said. That requires covering stacks of low-quality hay bales with plastic. Then anhydrous ammonia is leaked into the stack. Over time the gaseous nitrogen normally used for fertilizer breaks down cell-wall fiber. This releases digestible nutrients and lowers toxins in fescue hay.  The gas process used in recent droughts improved cattle feed.  Some farmers asked about cutting small shrubs and baling them for forage. “This definitely needs ammoniation. Also, beware of poisonous plants,” Roberts told listeners.

The night before the teleconference, rains fell across most of the state. But the rain was spotty. Some areas received 2 inches. Others got a trace or less.  Spotty thunderstorms are a result of a high-pressure dome stalled over the state, said Pat Guinan, MU Extension climatologist. Weather disturbances travel along the dome edge, giving more rainfall chances. Inside the dome, isolated high-energy thunderheads drop intense rains.  The long-range forecast calls for the dome to move eastward, Guinan said. That could bring more rains as high pressure moves out.

Last weekend big rains fell over Iowa into Illinois. “Those rains were anticipated to hit more of Missouri,” Guinan said. “They went north.”  Strong storms brought crop-destroying hail to some areas.  Valerie Tate, an MU agronomist at Linneus, said a storm in Linn County was about a quarter-mile wide and 5 miles long. 

Corn and soybean crops were shattered.  “Even hail-damaged crops are being considered for balage,” Roberts said. “However, those crops should be checked for nitrate content. High nitrates can kill cattle.”  Crop scouts see unusual developments of corn and soybean crops. Some soybean plants, only a few inches tall, carry blooms already.

Bill Wiebold, an MU soybean specialist, has seen plants with only three trifoliate leaves in bloom. High heat slows internode growth. The plants won’t grow tall but they can set pods.  Early blooms shut down the use of several post-emergence herbicides. Herbicide labels tell stages of growth that stop use. Some growers may not realize soybean fields are blooming.  A common comment among specialists has been, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Some corn has shot up nearing reproductive stage in the hot weather. That’s weeks ahead of normal. Other corn and soybean seed planted in dry soil haven’t germinated or emerged. One specialist reported that crusted soil stopped corn emergence. Ranges in crop development can be extreme.

More problems may come. “Drought brings grasshoppers,” Roberts said. Farmers with unusual crop conditions seek help at their local MU Extension center. Specialists might take the questions to the weekly teleconference for help.