Season of extremes

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Drought is nothing new to Larry Belshe.

The 69-year-old has endured many dry spells on his family farm in Gallatin, Mo., where he raises corn, soybeans and hay. Still, it never gets easy to watch crops wither at the mercy of the weather.

“We’ve been through all the ups and downs of the ’70s and ’80s, so we know how to watch our dollars and get through tough times,” said Belshe, who farms in partnership with his younger brother, Steve. “That’s just the way we were brought up. You work hard trying to grow a family and a farm, and you just keep going—even in years when you realize you’re not getting anything in return.”

This is one of those years. In the worst growing-season drought for Missouri since 2012, the Belshes only harvested about half the hay they normally would cut and bale. Corn fields that typically yield more than 200 bushels per acre averaged around only 50 bushels. Soybeans benefited from some late-season rains, but the brothers estimated the crop would only produce a dismal 15 to 25 bushels per acre.

They’re not alone. Most of their northwest Missouri neighbors are in the same shape. At the end of August, Daviess County was in the D4 “exceptional drought” classification—the most extreme level on the U.S. Drought Monitor map—and nearly 70 percent behind on rainfall.

John Davis, manager of MFA Agri Services in Gallatin, said many area farmers gave up on their corn crops and cut them for silage to feed livestock. Cattle producers culled herds, and some put their animals on dry lots and began feeding hay two to three months earlier than normal.

“By the time July rolled around, we knew plants were hurting and yields were going to be down,” Davis said. “Whether it was grass or crops, nobody’s efforts were coming to fruition. Guys were baling corn stalks and chopping silage, anything to make a feed source. There was nothing we could do to impact the weather. All we could do was adapt.”

Though more extreme in the northwest, the drought was widespread across Missouri. At the drought’s peak in August, more than 88 percent of the state was experiencing some degree of abnormal dryness. Eastern Kansas and southeastern Iowa were also affected. Much-welcomed rains in late August and early September helped improve conditions, but it was too little, too late for most crops.

As of Sept. 9, the USDA rated 44 percent of Missouri’s corn and 27 percent of soybeans as poor to very poor. Compounding the predicament are low commodity prices and prospects for high yields in other parts of the country, which may lead to over-supply.

Hay and other forages were also rated poorly, with 79 percent in short or very short supply, and stock water supplies were 46 percent short or very short. Pasture conditions were rated as 44 percent poor or very poor.

As drought monitor levels triggered government relief programs, MFA Natural Resources Conservation Specialist Matt Hill worked to make sure MFA’s member-owners were aware of grazing and haying programs to provide assistance. For example, the USDA Farm Service Agency offered cost-share to establish emergency water resources for livestock and released CRP ground for emergency haying and grazing. The Soil and Water Conservation District Commission allowed grazing on easement acres that are enrolled in conservation practices.

“Everybody pulled together, I feel like more so than in past years, and got ahead of things,” Hill said. “I have to give these agencies a lot of credit for that. It’s really something that hadn’t been done in Missouri before.”

One of the most popular forms of assistance was an emergency EQIP program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which allocated $2 million for forage development, specifically planting cover crops. Hill said NRCS was overrun with requests for the cost-share funds and quickly obtained another $2 million, which still wasn’t enough to approve all the applications.

“NRCS leadership saw the need, and as much as a government agency can, they cut a lot of red tape and made this program happen rather quickly and painlessly,” Hill said. “A lot of cover crops were planted with cost-share money as a result. The overwhelming response to the program really shows how great the need was for help.”

To spread the word about these programs as well as forage management strategies and alternative feeding options, Hill facilitated a series of drought information meetings for MFA patrons at Agri Services locations in Kirksville, Gallatin and Ozark.

“We wanted everyone to understand their options,” Hill said. “We invited staff from the county FSA office and NRCS along with Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Soil and Water Conservation Districts. [MFA Director of Nutrition] Dr. Jim White discussed forage and livestock nutrition strategies for drought. And I talked about cover crops and how to manage forage during the drought and plan for recovery when it rains.”

Davis said the information gathered from the meeting held at Gallatin Agri Services was appreciated by his staff and their producers.

“It’s good to know we had people watching out for us and relaying information,” he said. “The atmosphere has been pretty negative this summer, and we’re doing our best to keep these guys positive and show them that MFA is sincere about helping them solve their problems, not just passively offering suggestions.”

MFA personnel, at the corporate and local levels, also collaborated to keep plenty of supplies such as tanks, waterers, temporary fencing and cover crop seed on hand, Hill said.

“We wanted to make sure folks had what they needed to get through these tough conditions on their farms, whether it was through cost-share or not,” he said. “We need our customers to have successful operations, because without them, we don’t have a future either. I’m really proud of how everybody’s worked together, especially when things are happening fast and furiously.”

Further assistance came later in the summer from Gov. Mike Parson, a cattleman himself, who issued an executive order declaring a drought alert for 47 of Missouri’s 114 counties. The order also reactivated the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Drought Assessment Committee, a coalition of state and federal partners who worked together to provide struggling farmers unprecedented access to public lands for accessing water and harvesting hay. The committee also put together a website to serve as a comprehensive drought information resource at dnr.mo.gov/drought.htm.

“It was our job to identify what resources were currently available and figure out what additional help we could offer,” said DNR’s Kurt Boeckmann, who leads the committee’s Agricultural Impact Team. “Haying in state parks and pumping water from conservation areas, for example, were somewhat new ideas. In times like these, farmers needed us to come together and provide other options.”

Despite these relief efforts and rainfall brought to Missouri by Tropical Depression Gordon in mid-September, producers will be facing the effects of this summer’s devastating drought for some time to come, Hill said, especially those with livestock.

“Normally, farmers hope they don’t have to feed hay any earlier than October, but even in the wetter spots, we’re still two to three months ahead of time feeding it,” Hill said. “Just about everyone is in a forage shortage, with very tight supplies to make it through a normal winter before grass starts growing next spring.”

Going forward, he advised, farmers must switch from short-term survival mode to long-term plans to fortify their operations against dry weather.

“Working together to get through this year is the main thing for now, but we want to be forward-thinking, so we don’t have to be reactionary during the next drought,” Hill said. “In the future, I think you’ll see better water resources in many pastures, more efficient grazing systems and the establishment of some warm-season grasses, which shine during dry weather. Let’s learn from this and be in better shape next time.”

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