Oppressive heat and drought conditions aren’t hurting only crops.
Brown, shriveled corn fields throughout the Midwest — and the inevitable low yields and high prices — are capturing headlines. Livestock producers say recent dry and scorching weather is just as tough on animals.
Some relief could come Wednesday night. While a high of 100 degrees is forecast locally today, the National Weather Service projects a 30 percent chance of rain by 4 p.m., increasing to 70 percent before 10 p.m., with a quarter to a half of an inch of rain possible. Rainfall since June 1 is more than 6 inches below normal.
Heat-related livestock losses are being reported, according to Monday’s weekly U.S. Department of Agriculture Crops and Weather Report. Officials with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Iowa Cattlemen’s Association on Tuesday said exact numbers aren’t available, but deaths are low.
The big concern is feed supplies and costs, farmers and livestock experts said.
Robin Marquette, a dairy and cattle farmer near West Union, reduced her dairy herd by 15 cows recently because grass has withered away and milk prices aren’t high enough to buy extra feed. She fears the drought will severely reduce corn silage tonnage.
“There’s just nothing there. With the milk prices the way they are … I hope I don’t have to sell them all,” Marquette said.
“I’m looking at the dollars and cents of it,” she continued, trying to stay positive. “It’s just one year. I won’t let it get to me.”
On-farm milk prices in Iowa averaged $16.30 per hundredweight last month, according to government statistics.
Marquette will host a Pasture Walk-Grazing Field Day today at her farm, 20504 J Ave., from 1-3 p.m. She said fields aren’t much to look at.
Pastures and hay fields aren’t growing, she said. More than three quarters of Iowa’s pasture and range land is rated in poor to very poor condition, the report said.
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is sponsoring the field day. Marquette and other experts will focus on drought and heat-related help for producers. Highlights include rotational grazing, running waterlines to remote pastures using a solar pump and pipeline, converting crops to pasture and the potential to convert to grass-fed beef.
Marquette currently milks 45 cows. She also maintains a 20- to 30-head Red Angus cow-calf herd. The animals graze on about 200 acres of pasture and hay.
“I pulled more hay acres into the rotation. Why bale it if I’m going to turn around and feed it,” Marquette said. “I’ve pastured corn, too.”
In many grazing operations statewide, supplemental feeding is needed. It’s driven up the cost of production and depleted supplies for the fall and winter. The report said some farmers are starting to chop corn, which typically doesn’t occur until late next month or early September.
Corn yields will likely be cut in half or worse due to dry conditions, officials say. Prices have skyrocketed the past few weeks. Cash corn at Hudson-based East Central Iowa Cooperative approached $8 per bushel Tuesday.
Hay prices have doubled to tripled since April. Small squares at the Fort Atkinson Hay Auction on July 18 brought nearly $300 per ton, big squares exceeded $250 per ton and round bales topped $200 per ton. Auctions occur every Wednesday.
Matt Deppe, chief executive officer of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, said soaring feed prices and availability worry members.
“Producers are concerned about it,” Deppe said.
The USDA recently took steps to help drought-stricken livestock farmers.
The government will allow haying and grazing on Conservation Reserve Program and wetlands acres after the primary nesting season for birds, which is Aug. 1 in Iowa. Farmers need to contact their local Farm Service Agency office to do so. The CRP payment reductions for emergency forage use was reduced from 25 percent to 10 percent.
The USDA also reduced the interest rate for FSA emergency loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent. Farmers may also be able to modify Environmental Quality Incentives Program contracts to allow grazing and livestock watering facilities.
Late last week, Gov. Terry Branstad encouraged farmers to harvest grass in road ditches as a way to help feed animals and combat the drought. Farmers are allowed to mow and bale grass on highway right-of-ways during certain times of the year, but producers need a permit from the Iowa Department of Transportation.
“Harvesting grass along the side of state roads is an efficient and economical mean for farmers to maintain their livestock levels,” Branstad said in a statement.
Ponds and creeks, often a source of water for cattle and cows on pasture, are low or drying statewide. Farmers say low, stagnant water can contain harmful bacteria.
Livestock officials urge farmers to test drought-ravaged corn for nitrates and other harmful pathogens before feeding it to animals.
Though the risk of heat-related livestock deaths are a concern, experts say farmers have learned to keep animals cool using the latest technology and techniques.
Producers closely monitor livestock. They routinely check automatic waterers, fans and sprinkler and misting systems in buildings.
Russ Euken, ISU Extension livestock specialist for north central and Northeast Iowa, said providing ample water, shade and reducing feed is the best thing farmers can do for livestock.
When the mercury approaches the century mark, Marquette said she checks on livestock every two hours to make sure they’re doing well, misters are working and they have plenty of water.
Like a kid on a hot day, she said the cows enjoy the sprinklers.
“They love it,” Marquette said. “They cool off, go eat a little and come back.”