By Lester Aldrich

BridgeNews

KANSAS CITY (B)--Drought or drought-like conditions in large portions of the United States are reducing forage production and helping to boost prices for hay and pasture in western areas. Prices in southern states haven't been affected much yet, probably because it is still summer and at least some forage still is being produced to meet near-term demand.

"Prices are trending sharply higher on all hays in the mountain states as production drops," said Tom Morgan, president of Morgan Consulting Group Ltd. "I am surprised we are not seeing more of a price response out of the Southeast, but there may be a reason."

So little alfalfa hay is grown in the Southeast that no price data are collected, Morgan said. Farmers who may need to supplement their pastures with alfalfa have to import it from other states, but since the product isn't grown in the state, information on the price isn't recorded. Farmers may actually be paying more for their forage needs than the data show.

But out west, where wildfires are burning large chunks of grass and forestland, forage prices are up significantly, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures compiled by Morgan on his Website www.forage.com. In Wyoming, for instance, prices for alfalfa hay rose about $11 a short ton from May through July.

In Utah, alfalfa prices rose $10 from a low in June into July, Morgan's charts showed.

Morgan said the dry grasslands have contributed to the western fires. But as it is being burned away, the demand for alternative forages is climbing.

In a related development, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has said targeted grazing, coupled with controlled burns, could help prevent such disasters in the future.

For his Website, Morgan calculates a pasture conditions index from USDA weekly reports on pasture conditions. The index now stands at 48.0 for the nation as a whole, 9% below a year ago. It is the lowest rating since October and 17% below the average for the comparable week.

Pasture conditions continued to decline in the western area, dropping to an index of 37 on Morgan's index. This is 40% below a year ago, with the most severe drops in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Washington.

"The U.S. Southeast and the mid-Atlantic region as a whole is close to average," Morgan said.

In a reverse of last year, when drought severely crimped pasture and hay production, the index for the Northeast, at 73.3, is more than three times what it was then. In fact, precipitation has been so plentiful in some areas that hay quality has been affected.

Reduced pasture production in the most heat-stressed areas points to less hay production as well, Morgan said in Website comments. Also, because of reduced pasture production, hay demand likely is up, even in areas where price figures don't show it yet.

If farmers already are digging into their wintertime hay stocks, it is likely demand will increase as supplemental feeding increases, Morgan added.

That is likely to be felt the most in the western mountain states, Morgan said.

Pasture conditions in the central and northern Plains also declined recent weeks.

Kansas State University animal scientists Dale Blasi and Twig Marston are encouraging cattle owners to watch the condition of their cows as pasture conditions fade. Low body condition can lead to problems in the winter if the weather turns harsh.

Among other things, the pair recommended taking cows off pasture and putting them in pens so they could be fed with a combination of grain and roughage. With current grain prices at very low levels, this could represent a good feeding opportunity.

Jim Gerrish, research professor for the University of Missouri, said there could be herd liquidation in response to lowered forage availability. He hasn't heard of that happening in the Southeast yet, but farmers may wait until the second year of a drought before taking such a drastic step.

Some may chop corn for silage to provide the forage needed for the winter, Gerrish said. However, there are some problems.

Nitrate poisoning, which can be fatal, is something farmers should watch for. Gerrish said corn that had the full compliment of nitrogen fertilizer applied in anticipation of adequate moisture is the most susceptible to the problem.

The plant will soak up most of the applied nitrogen fertilizer but without adequate moisture, it can't use it, Gerrish said. So it is left over in the plant, mostly near the bottom of the stalk.

Consumed by cattle, the nitrogen in such silage can replace the oxygen in the cow's blood stream, Gerrish added. Death can be swift.

Fortunately, nitrate problems are easy to test for with a kit available from the county extension agent or feed stores, Gerrish said. With adequate field drying, the nitrogen dissipates, allowing cows to be turned out on the field to eat the stalks where they stand.

Morgan did not expect a large shift in corn silage production in areas where hot, dry weather was now reducing corn and forage yield prospects. Unless the corn yield is so low, the field can't be harvested for grain and the farmer has a use for the silage.

In the first place, plans for silage or corn for grain production are made before the crop is planted, Morgan said. Different varieties are planted depending on the end-use plans.

For instance, corn that is planned for silage generally is taller, with more green matter and is a later-maturing variety, Morgan said.

Specialized farming practices also do a lot to dictate whether a silage variety will be planted. It is needed for dairy farms, to help raise calves and for feedlots. Beef cows can go their whole lives and never get a taste o f silage.

But shifting geographical practices make silage use a declining factor, Morgan said. More dairies are being located in more arid portions of the country because cheap corn prices allow it and the forage needs to be shipped in.

(Silage is almost always fed on the farm where it is produced, as it can't be shipped economically in its raw or fermented forms.)

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