WICHITA, Kan. — There's no grass for grazing on Debbie and Duane Blythe's ranch in Kansas' parched Flint Hills. Instead, their cattle nibble on the leafy tops of turnips the couple planted after harvesting their winter wheat.
The Blythes are among thousands of farmers looking for alternative ways to feed their animals this winter after one of the worst droughts in the nation's history dried up grasslands in much of the country. The drought also cut hay production, making it harder and more expensive for farmers to buy supplemental feed.
Many farmers and ranchers have already sold off animals they couldn't afford to feed, and they're now having to get creative in coming up with ways to feed those they have left.
Turnips are nutritious, even if they seem like an odd choice for cattle feed, Debbie Blythe said.
She and her husband usually grow almost all of the hay they need to feed 500 head of cows and calves on their ranch near White City. This year, however, they got only about two-thirds of the hay they normally would. To make up the difference, they planted turnips and chopped failed crops of corn and milo from their fields and those of their neighbors to make silage, a fermented feed that their cows "love to eat like candy," she said.
They also cut the stalks left over after their wheat harvest for straw that they'll mix with higher quality feeds or supplements.
"Our cattle have been learning to eat things that they have not had to eat before," Debbie Blythe said.
This year's drought covered two-thirds of the continental U.S. at one point. While about a third is still in a severe drought, conditions overall are easing.
The harsh summer, however, cut into forage production across a far bigger area than even the year before, said Steve Hessman, hay market reporter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's office in Dodge City. The 2011 drought mostly affected ranchers in Texas, Oklahoma and southern Kansas, he said, but they could buy hay from states farther north, such as Nebraska.
This year, Nebraska was among the states hardest hit by drought. Three-fourths of it remains in the worst of five drought stages listed by the U.S. Drought Monitor.
That means little, if any, hay is being shipped south, but it's the high prices that are really forcing farmers to seek alternatives for their cattle, Hessman said.
"It's surprising, but we still have hay available for sale in Kansas because it is priced above what livestock producers and dairies are willing to pay for it," he said.
Dairy-quality alfalfa hay is now selling for about $260 to $285 a ton, although prices can go as high as $300 a ton. Stock cow-quality hay is now averaging about $260 a ton.
Hay cost even more a year ago, but that's another reason why farmers are holding off on buying now, Hessman said. They remember last year's mild winter and don't want to be caught with a lot of extra, expensive hay on hand come spring, he said. So unless they need hay right now, many ranchers aren't buying it.
Meanwhile, thieves have been stealing hay bales off farms nearly every day in Butler County in central Kansas, prompting the sheriff to increase patrols on rural roads. Authorities and some farmers have even placed deer cameras near some hay stacks to catch thieves.
In Missouri, many farmers are instead collecting corn stalks that are usually left in the fields. The Columbia Missourian reported that farmers' interest in harvesting the stalks prompted agricultural equipment manufacturers to build round balers specifically designed to handle the stalks, known as corn stover.
A ton of corn stover is going for $60 to $100, the Missouri Department of Agriculture reported in a market survey. The agency didn't even track corn stover sales prices until this year.
Brewster-area cattle producer Mike Schultz is among those baling failed corn to use as feed. He also has some hay saved from previous years.
But the dual purpose forage he planted on 80 acres in July is now only a foot and a half high. He decided not cut the plants to feed his 160 heifers because he was afraid the parched soil would blow away without a cover crop. The 56 acres of oats he planted never even came up.
"I have people calling me wanting to buy feed from us, and we aren't selling any because I don't want to run out," Schultz said. "We have got too many cattle here to be trying to help somebody else out right now. I am kind of concerned about my own well-being."