Missouri drought puts stress on farmers, livestock

Tuesday, July 3, 2012 | 5:44 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Exhausted pastures and evaporating ponds are causing livestock — and the farmers who own them — to feel the stress of prolonged heat and drought.

Grass in pastures across much of Missouri has very little moisture, lowering its nutritional value. In order to supplement animals' diets, some farmers are feeding them hay – a tactic they normally don't use until winter, Lonny Duckworth, president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, said.

To complicate matters, there's a shortage of hay right now. Duckworth believes some farmers run the risk of going into winter without enough hay to sustain their herds.

Duckworth also said cattle farmers have been forced to work during hours when temperatures are cooler in the day. “We don’t like to be out in the hot weather, and neither do these livestock,” Duckworth said.

Chuck Massengill, a farmer in Moniteau County, is one of those who has started to feed hay to his livestock because the grass in his pasture is exhausted. The water levels in Massengill's largest pond are about two feet below normal for this time of year.

Another one of Massengill's ponds has dried up, forcing him to move his cattle off that land. When ponds dry up, animals are at risk of getting stuck in the mud, making it very difficult to get them out. 

Although Massengill hasn't lost any cattle yet, he anticipates selling some animals to conserve the food supply for the rest of his herd. 

On Monday, Gov. Jay Nixon asked the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency to assist cattle ranchers by allowing their herds to graze on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, according to the Associated Press. The program pays farmers to prevent erosion and promote natural cover by leaving some of their acreage idle. Using Conservation Reserve Program land for grazing is allowed when there is at least a 40 percent shortage of hay and precipitation. Missouri is close to a 48 percent shortage of hay, the AP reported.

Boone County farmer Greg Buckman said Nixon's idea might not help.  

“It’s a good idea, but practically won’t work,” Buckman said. He said most of the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program lacks ponds to keep cattle hydrated or fences to keep them inside.

Many farmers are holding their breaths and hoping for rain. “It’s a trying time; it’s going to be a test," Massengill said. “So far, it has always rained.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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