Dairy Focus: Drought impacts feed costs and quality

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My generation remembers hearing about the Dirty ’30s from our elders, and now I tell my young colleagues about the Dirty ’80s. Are we heading into another major drought period?

Looking at the updated U.S. Drought Monitor website, drought has its grip on the upper Midwest and is creeping ever closer to us.

North Dakota farmers know that we are on the cusp of some significant weather-related challenges. The impact of the Midwest’s drought has spawned U.S. Department of Agriculture reports and generated announcements such as this: Widespread drought has created the largest ever natural-disaster area. That area encompasses more than 1,000 counties in 26 states.

Combine that with the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates for U.S. feed grain supplies, which projects sharply lower corn production, and producers likely will see feed shortages and already are seeing skyrocketing grain prices.

Drought issues conjure up many concerns, from feed safety to harvest challenges. While most of this region is far better off than the Corn Belt and other drought-stricken regions, we have isolated cases in our backyard, such as land broken out of the Conservation Reserve Program or a forage crop that had no moisture reserves, that never will make a crop.

Agronomists earlier reported that with the early planting, we had the potential for the best corn crop ever. Now, in the middle of July and without rain, crop losses will occur. Moreover, this area sells much of its feed and forage to more concentrated livestock-producing areas. That draw, fueled by drought, likely will cause feed issues for area producers as well.

The logical questions, given the likelihood of high-cost feed and feed shortages in areas surrounding this region, are: “What are the risks of harvesting these feeds?” or “If I receive feed from the drought areas, what should I be testing for?” Because the state already is dealing with water quality issues, my best recommendation is to stay tuned for updates and be proactive. In other words: Don’t guess. Test.

The security of testing the safety of certain feeds allows the users to make best management decisions before problems develop. But when feed is expensive and in short supply, the temptation is to overuse marginal-quality feed.

Because mycotoxins are species specific, we have no rule of thumb about how much you can feed. For some animals, mycotoxins in feed may create reduced gains. For example, lactating dairy animals already are working hard to produce milk. Reducing their intake would cut into milk production and compromise cow health.

Recommendations on feeding feed containing mycotoxins are not the same for all animals. Hogs have little or no tolerance for most mycotoxins, and horses cannot tolerate even low levels of fumonisin, a mycotoxin derived from Fusarium, which are fungi that can produce mycotoxins in cereal grains.

So what should you test for? In the case of corn shipped into our area, that is a difficult question to answer because much of the feed crop isn’t harvested yet. When receiving corn, the worrisome mycotoxins are aflatoxins, especially for dairy producers, because aflatoxins can be transmitted into the milk.

Granted, the interstate transportation of aflatoxin is regulated, but the purchasers of feeds and related byproducts need to be aware of where the feeds came from, when the feed was harvested and whether weather conditions had any impact on the crop.

Aflatoxins are not considered common to corn in the northern states, but cases have been found in South Dakota and Minnesota, and that’s not far away. So be mindful of the origin of your feed shipments. Besides, if we would experience seven to 10 days of 90 to 100 F heat in our area, our corn could become susceptible to aflatoxins, too.

Of course, the corn plant has to make an ear first to have grain for harvest. In the worst drought-stricken areas of the country, the corn and other crops may never mature. Then producers are faced with the challenges of salvaging the standing corn plants and turning them into silage or baleage.

This brings up another potential weather-stressed feed problem: nitrates. Water quality already is a concern because of nitrates, sulfates and total dissolved solids creating potential health issues for livestock. Stunted corn will have nitrates that it was transporting in the stalks to make an ear of corn. Without adequate moisture, the corn plant shuts down seed formation. That leaves a high concentration of nitrate in the stalks. However, if you know the level of nitrate in your feed, you can dilute it with other feeds. So nitrate in feed generally is manageable.

Livestock producers have many ways to utilize those marginal crops for feed, from as basic as placing electrified wire around the field as a temporary fence to making baleage. In 2009, when mold and wet conditions were the challenge, a common practice for cattlemen was to fence and graze standing corn fields not harvested, although I recall concerns about grain overload from livestock munching on the ears.

If you have plans of haying the crop, then keep in mind that raising the cutter bar leaves the highest concentration of nitrate (found in the stalk) in the field. The obvious drawback is the loss of precious feed because it’s not harvested.

An alternative is to ensile it. But reducing the nitrate takes time, and a minimum wait of 30 days is necessary before feeding it as silage to allow time to reduce much of the nitrates in the forage. Unfortunately, many farms no longer raise livestock and, therefore, no longer have forage-harvesting equipment to easily salvage fields or portions of fields that may not be suitable for combining.

More than 50 percent of the corn silage samples submitted for nitrate testing so far this summer have tested above the “safe” threshold for mature cattle, according to Dairyland Laboratories Inc.

Mid-July is critical for farmers and ranchers in North Dakota and surrounding states. Unfortunately for many of our southern and eastern counterparts, getting adequate rain now may be too late for crops. This horse race to the finish (harvest) for many in key corn and soybean states is a dismal trifecta of heat, drought and timing. The result is setting up to be an unwelcome scenario of crop losses and high feed prices.

In fact, an informal poll on the Dairy Herd Network’s website asked readers if corn prices would exceed $8 per bushel at some point this year. Of the 79 votes, 70 percent expect the price to exceed $8.

Some experts anticipate that the 2012 Midwestern drought could have the greatest impact on American agriculture since 1988. At this writing, the 10-day forecasts show little chance of any rain falling across the Midwest.

So for now, the best recommendation is to be aware of the current crop and feed situation, be careful with your feed purchases and be vigilant for opportunities that may present themselves for only a very short time.


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