Spotty rains plus heat hurts cows as pastures turn brown

Duane Dailey

I’ve seen how brown pastures go from Iowa state line to near Arkansas. A trip with MU Extension state specialists to West Plains revealed drought conditions.

From border to border pastures are hurting. Cow herds don’t have much available grass to graze. But, there is a difference. Howell County down south is lots greener than Mercer County up north.

We arrived at West Plains shortly after a good rain. Lawns in town looked green and beautiful.

Beef farmers at the meeting reported what I’ve heard from one end of the state to the other. If a good rain falls, it’s likely that neighbors a few miles away didn’t get anything.

Weather changed. Pat Guinan, MU climatologist, told the difference. Cold fronts came down with the jet stream. When warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico hit those fronts, we received rain. As those fronts moved, the rain moved with them. That could spread steady rains across the state.

Now, high pressure domes build up. Those don’t move much. Inside the dome, there’s lots of energy in the atmosphere which favors pop-up thunderstorms. Those drop good rains, but that’s just under the size of the cloud.

In travels I’ve driven through them. Or, seen the difference a few miles can make in drought symptoms. This drought doesn’t treat all alike.

Overall, Missouri has deficit rainfall. North remains worse than south.

What we saw driving north or south are many poor pastures. Hay fields in the past held lots of big round bales. Now they have few bales on a hillside.

Drive by scouting shows pasture damage easier than on soybean or corn fields. Standing corn may look good but the ears may not have many kernels or maybe shallow kernels.

When we see grass brown and grubbed into the ground, that’s bad.

Beef farmers say “I’ve never fed hay in August before.” And, there’s no cheap hay to buy. Anywhere.

After we left town, Columbia got some rain. But not near as much as Moberly in the next county north. Weather remains uneven.

Rains green up a pasture briefly. I saw a headline this week. “Green does not mean drought is over.”

Pastures have been hurt by lack of rain and overgrazing. When grass leaves were kept nipped short the area open to collect sunshine is cut. There’s less chlorophyll to convert carbon dioxide from the air into oxygen and carbon. That carbon builds new leaves and roots.

Damaged roots can’t be seen in drought-stricken pastures.

When steady rains return, it’ll take time to regrow roots and leaves.

The bigger unseen losses in a drought are failed pregnancies. Cows on short rations under heat stress abort newly formed embryos. To survive, cows cut short pregnancies. A cow needs her water and nutrients for her own survival.

An MU Extension veterinarian finds on his ultrasound preg checks up to 20 to 25 percent open cows. Those were cows tested pregnant a short while ago.

Beef herd owners can’t be complacent. They may be feeding cows that will give no payback. Another preg check could save lots of costly feed.

Many herds will be downsized as pastures rebuild.

We have a resource not there in earlier big droughts. Byproduct feeds from biodiesel and ethanol plants become a feed source. Those may be cheaper than hay. The MU AgEBB lists byproduct feeds, updated weekly.

The Beef ReproGene workshop was amazing. Excellent info for herd owners to build genetics. But, attendance was down. The drought outlook may have hurt attendance some speculated.

Now, in a time of downsizing, checking genetics is best way to decide what cows to cull or keep. DNA genetic tests give a better way to pick the keeper cows. The best looking cow may not be the best cow to keep. It’s called Genotype over Phenotype, or genetics over looks. It’s a big change in outlook

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