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Pasture and hay are low in much of the Midwest — leading to tough decisions for farmers

Hay harvest at Ernie Schirmer Farms in Macdona, TX, just outside of San Antonio, TX, on Aug 16, 2020.
Lance Cheung
USDA flickr
A USDA file photo of a hay harvest in 2020 in Texas. Hay is in high demand as drought dries up pasture that cattle would normally graze.

Drought across the Midwest and the Plains means pastures aren’t as green as usual, leaving cattle with less to eat. Hay is in high demand and low supply.

This time of year, Davin Althoff's cattle usually have plenty of forage to graze on to get the fiber they need to stay healthy.

But drought has left Althoff and many other producers struggling with the lack of green grasses.

“We’re seeing our pastures deteriorate at a rapid pace,” said Althoff, whose farm is located in central Missouri.

Nearly all of the Midwest is experiencing drier than normal conditions. Parts of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri are in extreme, and even exceptional, drought.

Dried-up pastures mean more producers are turning to hay this summer to feed their cattle, leading to short supplies and high costs. While hay is usually fed to livestock in the winter when pastures are dormant, it becomes a valuable resource during a drought, said Jay Parsons, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural economist.

“Because what typically would grow isn’t growing,” he said, “so you’ve got to feed them something.”

The price of hay varies across states. Parsons said Nebraska has been looking at $200 to $300 per ton for at least the last year. In Missouri, a large round bale of hay costs anywhere from $125 to $175.

That’s leading producers to make hard choices, said Chris Chinn, the director of Missouri’s Department of Agriculture.

“Feeding hay in June really eats into your hay supply for the winter months,” she said. “We’re starting to see a lot of cattle go to market because farmers and ranchers know they don't have enough feed supply to get them through until next spring when the grass hopefully starts growing again.”

With more than 90% of the state in drought status, Missouri is allowing farmers and ranchers to make hay on 700 acres in 17 of the state’s parks. About 425 acres are already under contract for haying, said Elizabeth Kerby, an environmental engineer with the Water Resources Center for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

“As a state agency, we’re going to do everything we can to assist our farmers,” Kerby said.

That includes opening boat ramps at more than 30 Missouri Department of Conservation areas for farmers to collect water.

Although Althoff is appreciative of what the state is doing to make hay available at state parks, he doesn’t live close enough to take advantage of the opportunities.

Davin Althoff runs a cattle operation in central Missouri. With the area in extreme drought, he's struggling with a lack of forage that he can normally count on to feed his cows.
Courtesy of Davin Althoff
Davin Althoff runs a cattle operation in central Missouri. With the area in extreme drought, he's struggling with a lack of forage that he can normally count on to feed his cows.

In Iowa, most of the state is in moderate to severe drought, with a couple pockets of extreme drought. Denise Schwab, a northeast Iowa extension beef specialist for Iowa State University, said pastures “are showing signs of drought stress” and she’s heard reports of a short first cutting of hay.

Schwab said hay is especially important to any producers who have ruminant animals such as cattle, dairy cows, goats or sheep.

“Their stomach is set up that it survives on fiber, it needs fiber in the diet,” she said. “Any of those animals, if they were fed straight grain, it would kill them. They just can't survive that way. So they have to have fiber forage in the diet in the form of either hay in the winter or grass to graze in the summer.”

At his cattle operation in Missouri, Althoff said he’s been adding corn to his cattles’ diets to help them get through the drought, but he may have to turn to hay soon or even sell some of his cattle.

“Unless something changes tomorrow and we start getting consistent rains, we’re going to have to just buy hay,” he said.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Katie Peikes is Iowa Public Radio's agriculture reporter. She joined IPR in July 2018 as its first-ever western Iowa reporter.
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