Drought Puts Livestock Owners in a Pinch

Drought Monitor updated to July 31, 2018 ( Chris Fenimore NCEI/NESDIS/NOAA )

As portions of the U.S. endure scorching drought, livestock owners struggle to locate feed supplies. Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and several more western states range from D0 (abnormally dry) to D4 (exceptional drought).

For brothers Alex and Chad Nuelle, their Higginsville, Mo. farm is facing hay and water shortages. They might need to start trucking in water—which is a first for their farm.

“Water is our biggest issue right now,” Chad says. “The ponds are drying up—we’re down to about one foot [of water].”

Right now, the Nuelles are feeding about 500 head of beef cattle and expect to add anywhere from 300 to 400 more this fall. While that will be an added cost, they think it’ll pay off in the long run as they’re seeing more ranchers consider selling out because cattle prices are depressed, and hay prices are through the roof.

In mid-Missouri, large round bales are selling for anywhere from $80 to $120, Alex says. “We chopped all of our corn acres for silage and we’re buying another 80 or 90 acres, aiming for 2,400 to 2,600 tons [of silage] when we’re done,” he explains.

In a normal year many farmers see in around 180 bu. per acre in corn, this year yields are low—and incredibly variable.

“I’m seeing ‘good’ corn in the 140 to 170 bu. range,” Chad, who is also a district sales manager for LG seeds, says. “Some in the 117 bu. or even into the 50 bu. per acre range, too.”

In Higginsville, Mo., and farther north in Missouri, farmers might be money ahead to chop corn for silage, Chad adds. This year their farm is averaging 17 to 18 tons per acre and they’re paying $30 per ton for silage, resulting in $540 of value. Last year they were getting about 22 tons per acre at $40 per ton.

Silage is in high demand this year. The Nuelles are short a couple hundred large square bales for their customers, and another 400 large round bales for their own operation, so they’re leaning more on silage than normal.

“This year is still better than 2012 in many ways and we’re less worried about nitrites,” Alex says. In 2012 they sent everything in to test for high nitrite levels, but this year they say they’re not seeing quite as much risk. “The corn is a little better than it was in ‘12 it was still green and brown when we cut it.”

Parts of Missouri received rain Monday night and the Nuelles saw about 1” fall on thirsty acres. This rain might not help corn much, but it could go a long way toward soybeans and building up fall pastures.

“The only thing guys are excited right now is cutting beans,” Chad says. “They’re short, but packed full of pods and we need rain to make sure those fill out.”

Farmers that missed rains are ready to bale soybeans, and a number that might not have access to silage equipment have already baled corn. The farms in northwest Missouri are in an even tougher spot.

“In north Missouri, many fields have been adjusted at less than 50 bu. per acre,” says Matthew Clark, farmer in Gilman City, Mo. “Most of our neighbors [us included] have started baling or chopping corn [this past week]. On July 10th my corner of paradise was declared a D3 drought.”

If rain doesn’t start falling to save soybeans, many farmers might find themselves baling the crop. And if rain doesn’t fall, it might force some farmers to make tough decisions.

“I think if we don’t get fall rains for beans and pasture we’ll see a lot of guys selling [cattle],” Chad says.