FARM SECTION: Lack of water big issue for cattle producers

Posted: Feb. 11, 2013 11:42 am Updated: Mar. 11, 2013 2:35 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Tyler Musgrave's keeping a close eye on feed supplies for his cattle, taking some help from Mother Nature for a change to get through until spring.

"There's definitely been less feed use this winter because of warmer temperatures," said Musgrave, part of the Musgrave Angus purebred Angus operation with his dad and brother. "Those days when it's 40-plus degrees, the grass grows a little. You put feed out, but the cows don't eat it. They're out grazing."

Cattle had little to graze last summer and fall as hot, dry weather withered pastures and worried producers.

Instead of pasture, the Musgraves relied on carryover hay from the year before and chopping corn for silage.

"We did have enough to make up the difference for what we lacked in the pasture," Musgrave said. "We were fortunate."

Lack of water was a bigger issue for the Musgraves.

"Some ponds were so low that the water was stale. We had to put in some lines, hook up to county water in one pasture," Musgrave said.

Pastures that could be used became unusable without a good water source.

"No matter how good or bad your feed is, you have to have water," said Zac Erwin, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist based in Lewis County. "For a lot of producers, a big concern is if we get a decent spring rain, get some runoff water, not just to recharge ground level moisture, but to put moisture back in ponds, lakes and streams."

But Erwin doesn't want to see producers focus solely on the lack of rainfall.

"We just have to keep in mind the rains will come again. This is not the only time we've been through this," he said. "Certainly focusing our efforts on what steps we need to take to get through it is more productive than the worrying we do when or if it's going to rain."

Producers may opt for planting alternative forages in the spring to "get a fair amount of tonnage on to get ahead of the game," Erwin said. "I don't have a five-step plan for getting out of a drought, but looking at the shortfalls of last year, if this year looks like a continuation of something dry or drier, maybe we look at some other options."

Even more important may be pasture management.

"The producers that were able to graze most of this year instead of having to turn to mechanical harvested forage were those that had a sound grazing plan in place. I know a lot of those producers said forage got pretty short, but they never had to feed a bale of hay," Erwin said. "Sometimes that's a multi-year plan. Sometimes all you have to do is build a little fence to more effectively utilize what you have."

Taking a close look at pastures can help for the coming season.

"If you've got weak spots in pastures, you need to fill in with frost seeding or subsequent seeding of forages, grass or a legume. Be prepared to battle weed pressure. Try to manage your pastures as good as you can to get the most out of them," said Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension educator in commercial agriculture.

"Most producers have done their best to really get hold of what feed they can," Meteer said. "Once we get out of winter and start relying on pastures again, if they don't fill the need then we're going to see some liquidation of herds or some alternative strategies, maybe planting some small grains or dedicating a portion of the row crop to silage for cattle feed."

Proper management may keep producers in business.

"We've used up a lot of our reserves," said Dan Goehl, a Canton, Mo., veterinarian and cattle producer. "This is going to be a very telling year."