Facing drought-reduced feed and low profits, Missouri dairy producers maintained their milk cow numbers in 2012.
"I'd heard reports all fall of dairy herds going out of business, but we didn't drop cow numbers one bit," said Joe Horner, University of Missouri Extension dairy economist. "We held steady at 93,000 cows, exactly where we were a year ago."
Several factors helped dairy farms maintain the milking herds.
"We did lose 13 percent of dairy farms, but we have a new generation of producers coming on. They grow as fast as the older demographics drop out," Horner said. "Last year I did a lot of new business projections for young dairy farmers. Actually, 2012 was one of the best times to get into the dairy business."
Lower startup costs reduced risks for beginners.
The newcomers could buy older dairy farms. At the same time, there wasn't much competition for replacement dairy heifers.
"Dairy heifers were selling for about half of what replacement beef heifers cost. And dairy heifers cost little more than what cull dairy cows sold for," he said.
Dairy farms do face low milk prices and low profit margins. But both meat and milk will be in short supply in years to come.
"Prices will get better," Horner said. "We will need the inventory. Most dairy farms are run by full-time operators that need a certain volume of milk. Their livelihood depends on making milk. When feed supplies grew short in the drought, they went looking for feed and paid what was needed. They just did it."
Extending feed in drought
Another drought year ahead or not, adding more forages to the grazing mix helps during the annual summer slump.
University of Missouri Extension forage specialist Rob Kallenbach advocates more alfalfa, even though the legume has fallen out of favor with some producers.
Planting alfalfa can boost production on any pasture-based livestock farm, Kallenbach said.
"Yields in 2012 were an eye-opener for those who had alfalfa in their forage mix," he said. "Alfalfa kept growing long after other crops had dried up and died. The deep-rooted legume was noticeably greener."
Drought brings renewed interest in establishing the protein- and nutrient-rich legume.
Kallenbach admits alfalfa is a picky plant. "It likes deep, rich, well-drained soils. Alfalfa won't tolerate wet feet," he said.
But the legume responds well to good management, especially when lime, phosphorous and potash levels are kept up to soil-test recommendations. "Alfalfa pays well for extra attention. With a little care, it grows more tonnage per acre," Kallenbach said.
In addition, the legume fixes enough nitrogen for its own use. That cuts fertilizer costs.
While Kallenbach favors alfalfa, every farm can benefit from clovers, red and white, and lespedeza seeded into grass pastures. Those legumes extend grazing into the summer slump -- and help farmers diversify forage beyond toxic tall fescue, Missouri's dominant pasture forage.
Mixed-species pastures with managed grazing may become part of the survival of beef herds in Missouri.
Even if drought doesn't come, alfalfa producers have high-tonnage forage to be grazed, baled or put up as balage. If not needed on the home farm, alfalfa becomes a highly-marketable feed. Someone, somewhere will need it and be willing to pay big bucks for it.
Compiled by Herald-Whig Staff Writer Deborah Gertz Husar.