Bred heifer prices swoon as bidders see forage lack

Duane Dailey

It’s no surprise heifer prices swooned at the final spring sale of Show-Me-Select Heifers in Palmyra Saturday.

The sale attracted a light crowd. Bidding dropped below previous sales. The 134 head sold for an average $1,598. That’s down $189 from the top average at three previous sales.

A trip from Columbia to Palmyra, north of Hannibal, gave a view of farming in the claypan region.

In our van, MU specialists talked crops and heifer prices. Right off, we expected low prices. But, as we went northeast our optimism grew. Closer it rose higher.

We passed areas with recent rain. That should bring optimism to bidders. Rain meant grass. Rain meant farmers wouldn’t be baling hay.

A crowd could show up to buy heifers guaranteed pregnant with tested genetics.

As the auction started, few seats were filled. However, late arrivals settled in. But, they only doubled a sparse crowd.

My expectations sank. Looking back, some herd owners with barns full of hay and bins full of feed may wish they’d restocked cow herds with bargain heifers. That’s my fantasy thinking. It didn’t happen.

Bidding won for some lucky buyers. We needed two bidders wanting to fill semi-trailers with replacements. It happened before. A couple of corn farmers from nearby Illinois made a sale. Missouri quality heifers attract out-of-state bidders. Even at higher prices, heifers delivering live calving-ease offspring are worth money. Repeat buyers confirm that in fall and spring sales.

After the sale, I heard instant analysis. It was not the volatility in the beef market. It wasn’t the tinkering with tariffs. It was lack of feed to keep a cow herd.

Economist Scott Brown tried to find numbers to confirm that Missouri farmers send lots of cows to sale barns. Rumors tell there’s a rush of cows sold because of no grass or hay.

Rumor may be stronger than fact. You must check what you read on Twitter or hear at coffee shops.

However, I saw some concerning sights on my windshield tour across northeast Missouri. Yes, corn looks better than rumors say; soybean, not so good. Lots of corn past knee high by the Fourth of June, which beats knee-high by the Fourth of July.

I didn’t see any good pastures, or fields of baled hay. Lots of pastures grow tall with seed stalks. That fits response to the weird weather in spring of 2018. Wait! In fact, there was no spring of 2018. There was late winter; then came early summer.

Pat Guinan, MU climatologist, summed it up at the end of May. April was the second coldest April. The previous record was 110 years ago. That was followed by the very warmest May on record, in forever.

Here’s what we learned in that extreme: Pastures and hay fields can’t thrive. In cold, grass didn’t grow leaves. That’s the forage cows need.

In that sudden rise in temps, grass needs to survive. It puts up stout stalks with seed heads. That’s what cows don’t need. Stems and seed are high fiber, low nutrient. Worse, that stemmy grass can be toxic. That’s a special problem in our number one grass, toxic tall fescue.

At the sale barn I heard tales of being unable to bale hay. One report of hay baling, a field that made 55 bales last year made 19 this year.

That’s a major calming of bidding for heifers. No one wants to expand even with bargain heifers.

It’s still to be seen if quality hay can be made on second-growth grass.

Here’s what I did see, a cow herd with small calves were spread out over a grass pasture. Cows nipped at grass shorter then grass in my front yard. They were not getting mouthfuls of grass. Nips of grass were supporting them.

That won’t work.

Send your grass and rainfall reports to or 511 W. Worley, Columbia, Mo., 65203. Condition change in a few miles.