Drought, Short Pastures, Less Hay Combine to Make Perfect Storm

Husker Home Place

Murphy's Law is in full force as drought sets in after acres of grazing and hay land have been planted to row crops.

Published on: July 3, 2012

Who are we kidding anyway? We should have predicted this situation. High grain prices drive some farmers to tear up every acre to get the most out of high priced land. In some areas, thousands of acres of pasture and grazing land were planted to row crops this spring. Farmers in many parts of the state opted to tear up alfalfa or plant fewer acres of new seeding alfalfa, to make room for corn and soybeans. In USDA’s June 1 acreage report, planted acres of corn reached an 80-year high at 9.9 million acres in Nebraska. Soybean acres were up four percent from last year and sorghum is up 10%.

Who could argue with the reasoning? Grain prices have remained high, with good potential for profit. Although cattle prices and hay prices have also been high, sometimes it is easier to raise row crops. Besides, in most of the state, we’ve been raising extra forages these past few years. Some pasture land has been underutilized by our cow herds, because precipitation was so abundant and the resulting forages were plentiful.

LIKE OCTOBER: This warm season pasture is completely dormant and looks more like autumn than early July.
LIKE OCTOBER: This warm season pasture is completely dormant and looks more like autumn than early July.

Who would have thought that the devastating drought that struck the southern Plains states last summer would work into Nebraska? We were lulled into the idea that every season would be like the last few. We had no idea how dry things could get in a very short period of time.

But, in the past few weeks, we’ve been rudely reminded of the epic challenges of real drought. A stark reminder of the heat and drought came the other morning when I was finishing chores. Temperatures were hovering around 80 degrees, but it still felt comfortable. Around 8 a.m., as a warm front came in, what is known as a “heat burst” poured across the farm yard. Temperatures soared in a matter of a couple of minutes by about 20 degrees or more. The air felt like a blast furnace. You couldn’t breathe. It was almost unbearable.

NOT MUCH GREEN: In this pasture, a few weeds remain green. Only surrounding irrigated crop fields exhibit any life.
NOT MUCH GREEN: In this pasture, a few weeds remain green. Only surrounding irrigated crop fields exhibit any life.

Fortunately, as this sudden heat burst passed, temperatures cooled again and a breeze came along. But that moment when the burst of hot air hit, reminded us how much things have changed since last season.

As for forage shortages, we’ve been planning how to best utilize our forage resources, grazing our pastures carefully and planning for summer annual grasses and other forage mixtures that will help fill the forage gap. Watch for our August issue of Nebraska Farmer for more on summer annual grasses and fill-in forages and watch www.nebraskafarmer.com online for more timely drought coverage and new tips to deal with the challenges. In the meantime, keep praying for rain.

You can also learn more from University of Nebraska Extension forage specialist, Bruce Anderson in his UNL CropWatch "reality check" article.