Specialists share insight into challenges facing ag and families

Jul 27, 2012

As Bob Fanning drives to and from work each day, the corn fields he passes are a constant reminder of the drought’s devastating impact.

“For a while everything looked healthy and green, then in the last 10 days the plants’ upper leaves began to stand straight up and curl lengthways—a defense mechanism triggered when the plants are under moisture stress,” said Fanning, a South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension plant pathology field specialist who lives in Lyman County.

As the largest drought on record since 1988 continues, South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers are witness to its negative impact on their crops, livestock and livelihood.

“Nearly the entire Corn Belt is in some level of drought right now. The last time we saw a drought of this coverage was in 1988. Although the droughts of 2002 and 2006 were fairly severe, they were more focused on the Plains,” said Dr. Dennis Todey, state climatologist.

To provide insight, information and support to the state’s agricultural producers, SDSU Extension gathers specialists from across the state to address farmers and ranchers during a Drought Update held last week at the eight Extension Regional Centers throughout the state.

Will there be a crop to harvest? This is the question on many crop farmers’ minds as they watch the plants in their fields succumb to drought stress. To best address this question, Fanning suggests farmers do a yield assessment of their crops to see if there is any chance they will have a grain crop to harvest.

“There is no question that some growers will lose money on the crop. Input costs are high, and the crop is at a critical stage right now. They need to look at which options will lose less money,” Fanning said.

Before making any decisions, Fanning suggests farmers check in with their crop insurance providers. If they are unable to harvest a grain crop, then he strongly recommends they test for nitrates before deciding to harvest it through grazing, hay or silage.

“They also need to consider that weeds in the crop and/or forage they harvest for livestock feed may contain high levels of nitrates, or may be inherently toxic to livestock,” said Fanning, adding that all Regional Extension Centers have test kits available to producers for preliminary nitrate testing.

Information on yield assessments can be found at www.igrow.org/agronomy/drought/

Limited feed and water supplies have many of the state’s cattle producers on the verge of making tough management decisions which may include culling their herd, says Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension cow/ calf field specialist.

“As far as options go, it’s difficult to make a blanket statement that applies to all livestock producers in the state because the conditions vary so much across the state,” Rusche said.

He says livestock producers’ greatest challenge is the availability and cost of feedstuffs.

“Feed supplies are tight. A year ago we shipped a lot of hay to Texas because we had an excellent hay crop, and the producers there were in a severe drought and willing to pay. Not much hay will be shipped out of state this year,” Rusche said.

Along with hay supplies, he says the drought has reduced the available pasture and range forages. He adds that along with demand driving the price of feedstuffs up, the drought’s impact on corn yields is directly reflected in the price of livestock feed.

“Feed in general, no matter what form, follows the cost of corn. As corn has gone up, feed has gone up—even roughages,” Rusche said.

Potable drinking water for livestock is also in short supply in some areas of the state.

“Many western South Dakota stock dams are low.

And the quality of the water available may be compromised by total dissolved solids and sulfates. These have caused death in some cases,” he said.

Like Fanning, Rusche reminds livestock producers that if they are planning to salvage a grain crop for forage, they need to have that feed tested for nitrates. The same is true for forage crops such as sorghum-sudan, sudangrass and millets.

“It’s much cheaper to test ahead of time rather than take the risk of loss,” Rusche said.

If producers wish to have their water supply tested, all Extension Regional Centers have kits on hand to conduct preliminary tests.

While the state’s crop and livestock producers are the first to face financial stress brought on by the current drought, Dr. Carrie Johnson says soon all South Dakotans will feel the pinch on their pocketbooks.

“Although it won’t be right away, as soon as reduced yields and increased input costs begin to impact crop and livestock markets, the prices in the grocery store will begin to rise,” said Johnson, an SDSU Family Resource Management field specialist.

To keep the grocery budget in check, Johnson encourages household managers to plan meals at least weekly and take a list to the grocery store.

“It’s proven that if you walk into a grocery store without a list, you’ll spend more than if you walk in with a list,” she said.

Johnson also suggests using sales to help plan the weekly menu.

“I suggest using the weekly ads when planning and plan meals around the most expensive part, which is usually the meat,” she said. — SDSU Extension