Drought Preparation Tips for Livestock Producers

After attending the Farmers & Ranchers College Cow/Calf College, there was lots of discussion on preparing and managing the current drought. First of all, Al Dutcher, our state climatologist drove home the fact that most likely the drought will continue in 2013 based on models and other predictions. That being said, what does this mean for agricultural producers?  Bruce Anderson, UNL Extension Forage Specialist spoke on forage planning for the anticipated drought. Current pastures have weak pasture plants, therefore it will be important to delay the start of spring grazing by 10-14 days, use long recovery periods, resist temptation to restock (too soon) and consider annual crops/pastures to reduce pressure and stress on current pastures. Bruce reminded cattle producers to consider planting small grains in the spring, summer forages such as sorghums, sudans and millets and in the fall consider oats and brassicas such as turnips. He reminded producers to adjust the animal demand, pointing out that 75% of the normal stocking rate could even be an aggressive rate in some situations. With the potential for weeds to come up after a spring rain, proper weed management should be considered as well.WebPicpanel13.2

One grazing source that should be utilized right now is cornstalks. Aaron Stalker, UNL Specialist reminded participants that Nebraska corn residue is in abundance; in fact beef animals graze only 25% of corn! Aaron stressed that the stocking rate is very important in allowing the cattle to effectively graze the stalks. Cows are selective grazers on stalk fields. They will select the corn first, followed by the husks which are the highest in quality of diet. Then they will select leaves which are medium quality and finally the cob and stem last which is lowest in quality. In all the years UNL has conducted research on the agronomic yields associated with cattle grazing, it has shown no decrease in yields, so utilizing these stalks, especially in times when forage is short is very important.

Another important discussion for drought preparation is pasture rental rates which was presented by Allan Vyhnalek, Extension Educator in Platte County. As with anything communication is critical to success for both the tenant and the landlord! While pasture rental rates might be set already between both parties, it is important to consider adjustments based on the 2012 drought and the expected 2013 drought BEFORE the cattle are out on the pasture. Adjustments should consider if there will be a shortened grazing season – how will that change the lease payment? In case of a weed flush, who will pay for the weed control?  If a pond or creek usually used for water is dry, how will the water bill be split? During the growing season, both parties should communicate and provide each other updates.

In conclusion, there are many important considerations when caring for livestock during drought conditions. Taking appropriate planning and management steps now can reduce problems and your risk later.

Crops, Livestock

Grazing Corn Stalks in No-till Fields

The drought this year has left many cattle producers in a bind. Hay prices are high and pastures are burnt up which leaves corn stalks as an excellent grazing option. While many producers annually graze cornstalks, this year it will be of even more importance. Cattle are already in stalks and there are lots of corn fields being baled for forage.

A recent UNL CropWatch article by Charles Wortmann, Terry Klopfenstein, and Aaron Stalker showed that in a corn-soybean rotation study conducted from 1996 to 2011, the effects on yields of the following crop were determined for fall-winter grazing (November to February) and spring grazing (February to mid-April, the time of greatest concern of compaction by animal traffic on thawed and wet soil). The field was irrigated and had three treatments (fall/winter grazed, spring grazed, and ungrazed) which have been maintained in the same area since 1996. The stocking rate was with yearlings at 2.5 times the normal level since 2000. On average, yield of the following soybean crop was increased by about 2 bu/ac with fall-winter grazing, and 1.3 bu/ac with spring grazing, compared with no grazing of corn stalks. Yield of corn as the second crop after grazing was not significantly affected. There is ongoing research which will be reported in the 2013 Nebraska Beef Cattle Report which include a dryland trial.

The article concluded that grazing corn stalks is compatible with no-till management in eastern Nebraska and probably is for irrigated fields throughout the state with no loss in average grain yield expected. With wet soil conditions in the spring, consider removing cattle from the field or taking other steps management steps to minimize the effect of compaction.


Mentally Coping with Drought

With harvest underway, most likely producers are suffering yield losses in rainfield fields. Many producers will have very high energy bills from the long irrigation season. High nitrate issues are of concern for livestock producers. The list goes on for the problems this year’s drought caused. With that can come an emotional stress that directly impact farm families as they cope with those burdens.

After the Drought, a September 27 one-hour national webinar will address this topic and the resources available to help farm families cope. The program’s goal is to provide farm families, Extension educators, and other agriculture professionals with basic resources to address mental/behavioral issues related to the drought.

Program topics will include:

  • Mental health issues likely to be encountered by drought-stressed farmers, such as depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts and actions, and substance abuse
  • Proper identification of signs and symptoms
  • Appropriate responses when interacting with farm family members
  • Referral sources for additional assistance
  • Training opportunities available through Mental Health First Aid.

More information is available at UNL Extension’s CropWatch website.


Potential Aflatoxin Issues

About a month ago, I received a call from a grain handling facility wanting to prepare their customers for testing of aflatoxin in corn. UNL Extension has several resources regarding aflatoxin and a recent CropWatch article written by Tamra Jackson-Ziems hit on the following key points.

  • Drought and high temperatures as we experienced this growing season can promote the development of Aspergillus ear rot; the fungi that cause this disease can produce aflatoxin. Aflatoxin is a mycotoxin which can be toxic to animal and human consumers and at various concentrations can lead to dockage or rejection at grain handling facilities.
  • Notable aflatoxin contamination appears to be in a small percentage of southeast Nebraska fields, based on samples submitted to several laboratories in the area.
  • At low concentrations, mycotoxins can be safely consumed and are common. Farmers and crop consultants should scout high risk fields for Aspergillus ear rot as an indicator for aflatoxin, but only lab testing of grain samples can accurately identify the concentrations of aflatoxin.
  • Laboratories that can test for aflatoxin must be certified by the federal Grain Inspection Service and Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration, or GIPSA.  A list of those facilities can be found at GIPSA’S website.

Tamra reports that high risk factors for aflatoxin contamination in corn are:

  • Drought-damaged fields, including rainfed (dryland) fields and non-irrigated pivot corners
  • Fields or areas with higher incidence of corn ear-feeding insects, such as the corn ear worm
  • Grain damaged before or during harvest or after harvest while in storage

Jackson-Ziems also points out that ear rot diseases and aflatoxin are not evenly distributed across fields or in the grain, so scouting and/or sampling should include a substantial portion, at least several acres.  Finally, if you have fields at risk of aflatoxin contamination, it is recommended that grain is kept separate from grain at less of a risk.


Cover Crops during Drought

Recently I’ve been asked by several producers about the feasibility of planting cover crops during drought so I researched several different articles. Kris Nichols a soil microbiologist with USDA ARS in North Dakota says that when in a drought, farmers should consider planting a cover crop as they play a vital role in soil and plant health. Nichols said in a Farm Industry News article, “Many times during a drought, plants are not as much water stressed as they are nutrient stressed. The way plants get nutrients from the soil to their roots is through water. In times of drought, plants will sometimes give off their own water supply to create a water fill around the roots so nutrients can travel.”

Will there be enough moisture for the cover crops to germinate? According to Justin Fruechte, cover crop and forage specialist for Millborn Seeds in South Dakota, even in drought stricken areas, cover crops can still grow. Fruechte says that, “Most species have very fine seeds and require little moisture to germinate. When planting into dry soil, be sure to close the furrow tightly and that seed will wait for moisture.”

UNL Extension Educator, Paul Hay pointed out that for those needing grazing, turnips can be seeded in the later part of August until early September. Fall rains will dictate the amount of growth. For those with experience, there is lots of feed long after the tops are gone, as the cattle root out the tubers. Oats can also be a late fall opportunity for haying or grazing. Oats will do better in fall production. Wheat, rye or triticale would be better choices for spring pastures which could be grazed off before killing them and planting summer crops.


Grazing Alfalfa

A question brought up regards grazing alfalfa fields that are too short to cut. Bruce Anderson, UNL Forage Specialist wrote the following article earlier this year which is another resource for livestock producers. One thing that can’t be emphasized enough is the need to have cows full when turning out and to turn them out early in the afternoon rather than morning as there is less chance of dew and the alfalfa tends to contain more carbohydrates and less bloat-increasing proteins at that time of day.

Anderson went on to say that both drought-stunted alfalfa and well-growing alfalfa might fill the role of a temporary pasture.  To get started, he recommends dividing fields so animals graze no longer than 5 days at a time on any one area.  One rule of thumb is that one ton of standing alfalfa hay will provide about 45 cow days of grazing.  If you estimate your alfalfa would yield one ton of hay if you cut it right now, then one acre should feed 45 cows for one day.  Also if possible, limit the size of paddocks to 10 acres or less to get more uniform grazing.  After grazing a paddock, plan grazing and haying so at least 35 days of regrowth will occur before harvesting the same area again.

To reduce bloat, begin grazing alfalfa after it begins to bloom.  Short, drought-stunted, yet blooming alfalfa should be pretty safe.  Also, be sure animals are full before first turning onto alfalfa and never let animals get hungry.  In addition, begin grazing mid-afternoon and do not turn them onto fresh alfalfa that is moist with dew, rain, or irrigation.  Yearlings tend to bloat less than cows, but feeding supplements like poloxalene, rumensin, and oxytetracycline can help reduce bloat for all classes of cattle.

These precautions and management practices can help you use alfalfa for pasture and overcome the late summer pasture slump.


Crop ET Weekly Report

The ETgage reading south of Geneva dropped 2.4 inches for the week of July 15 – July 27th. Corn and soybeans in our area has a coefficient of 1.1 inches so it used 2.64 inches or .38 inches per day!  We received almost .20 inches of rain and unfortunately as I write this, there is no decent chance of precipitation in sight. One interesting fact I came across from The New York Times showed that more than half of the country was under moderate to extreme drought in June, the largest area of the contiguous United States affected by such dryness in nearly 60 years. Nearly 1,300 counties across 29 states have been declared federal disaster areas.

Drought Resources

With drought conditions extending through most of Nebraska, UNL Extension has created a new website with resources for agricultural producers, homeowners and all seeking information for coping with this emerging issue. To access these materials, go to UNL Extension’s Drought Site.

North Central Nebraska Fires

Along with drought comes concern for fires, as witness by the Fairfield Creek Fire in the Niobrara river valley in north central Nebraska. Once of my Extension colleagues, Dennis Bauer shared the following article which depicts some of the many challenges ahead for producers in that area.

North Central Nebraska livestock producers have been hit with a one -two punch, drought and now fire.  The extremely dry conditions, coupled with the fire which has burned tens of thousands of acres of pasture land, and that continues to burn, has turned this into a disaster of major proportions.

The fire has consumed hundreds of miles of permanent fence, along with what little summer grass was left for several thousand cows and calves to feed on.  The fences that have been destroyed will have to be rebuilt before grazing can resume next year, if weather conditions permit a good growing season.

The North Central Development Center in Ainsworth has set up a fund to take monetary donations to help with the cost of the fire.  Donations may be made on line through PayPal.

Donations of wire and post may be delivered to the Farmers and Ranchers Coop in Ainsworth Ne., 224 South Main St.  Contact is Rocky Sheehan, Plant Manager, phone – 402-387-2810.

Individuals who wish to specify their donations to help with fencing materials and hay may send checks to the University of Nebraska Extension office in Ainsworth. The mailing address is BKR Extension office, 148 West 4th Street, Ainsworth, NE. 69210.  Donations will be deposited into the NCDC Fire Relief Fund.

100% of the funds collected will go to help those who have been affected by the fire.  All needs will be taken from the fund, whether it is fencing, hay, feed for animals, personal needs of those impacted by the fire and help for other fire departments that have responded to our distress.

For more information please contact the UNL extension office in Ainsworth 1-800-634-8951 or e-mail  The NCDC can also be contacted at 402-387-2740 for more information.