Spotty drought may hit grass harder than corn, bean crops

Duane Dailey

A trip across dry counties of North Missouri can mislead. There’s more drought damage than seen. It’s most misleading if it’s raining. Those rains last five minutes, over limited area.

“Just enough to wet the grass,” a farmer said.

Along highways in 42 counties with CRP land freed for grazing you see green soybeans and tasseled corn. A good crop year, right?

There’s more drought than meets the eye.

As I drove along I saw many big round bales of hay. Those were on the highway right of way. Across the fence, it seemed every grassy hill had been mowed and baled.

Here’s what I know. Haying takes more than rolling up vegetative matter. Most of those roadsides aren’t good hay fields. Un-mowed parts show more weeds and tree saplings than grass.

Wrapped up baled weeds will be fed to cows. The bales just across the fence are too widely scattered. Not many bales per acre.

Those weren’t prime hayfields mowed, raked and baled. It was pastures gone to seed, far past quality forage. That’s what cows face for winter meals. Leftovers.

The good thing about bovine grazers is their rumen. That’s one of their stomachs that can holds lots of fiber. The rumen digestion vat contains millions of microbes that break down any kind of fibrous vegetation.

Rumens and grass-covered hills make Missouri cattle country. Much land remains best suited for growing grass and hay. That provides year-round feed for cow-calf herds. Some land in soybean and corn crops should be in grass and legumes.

Pastures hold soil on those hillsides. Some flat bottomland fields are suited for alfalfa and other legumes, which make proteins that cows need for forage supplement.

This uneven drought seems to affect grass more than crops. But, crops may not fare as well as they look. Driving by at highway speed is no way to scout crops.

Scouting takes walking into cornfields and stripping back husks on ears. Photos on Twitter show freshly harvested corn cobs with few kernels of corn.

Bad weather back when those corn plants were knee high may stunt embryo ears. Corn is one and done. Weather provides a combination of rain, sunshine and temperature. That didn’t happen right for some corn this year.

Soybeans are different, they just keep trying. No one-and-done for them. They are a thrifty crop from China, newcomers here.

In 2012, soybeans fooled me. In that last major crop killing drought the beans looked lost right up to September. Then big rains from a Gulf coast hurricane gave recovery.

MU forage scientists remind grassland farmers to plan on, count on, and hope for return of fall rains. Seed headed, stemmy grass and weeds must be clipped, but not now.

I’ve written that story for many years. In mid-August get pastures ready for making winter stockpile grass. Grass grown in pasture’s second season is left standing for grazing in winter. Done right that makes unharvested feed for cows up until spring green up. Management-intensive grazing taught in MU grazing schools tells how.

Rotational grazing and winter stockpile allow pastures to carry more cows per acre. That’s money in the bank.

Here’s the kicker. Even if it looks hopeless in August, farmers must assume rains will return.

The old farmer joke: When asked if it will rain, the reply is: “It always has.” No timeline given, however.

I hear Craig Roberts, MU forage agronomist, saying: In a drought, you have a 50-50 chance of winning on fall growth. If you don’t prepare, by clipping and fertilizing, you have a 100 percent chance of failure.

It takes planning, plus prayers for rain or doing a rain dance.

This year, more than ever, winter stockpile will be as spotty as the rain.

The latest long-range forecast shows more hurricanes. That might mean the big rains to save beans and pastures in September.

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