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Forage Producers Face High Input Costs, Drought

Forage Producers Face High Input Costs, Drought

Higher fertilizer prices and poor precipitation outlook could mean thin margins and little room for error for cattle and forage producers this year, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service expert.

Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension forage specialist, Overton, said input costs and weather conditions now and those forecasted should be on forage and cattle producers’ minds as they prepare for warm-season grass production.
It may feel cooler than usual, but temperatures were on par for a typical March, she said. Temperatures were still dipping into the 40s at night for much of the state, which means warm-season grasses have not started to actively grow.
Corriher-Olson said producers need to be patient and hold off on fertilizing hay meadows and grazing pastures until nighttime temperatures are 60 degrees consistently. For example, Bermuda grass does not begin to actively grow and take in nutrients until soil temperatures reach 65 degrees.
“It seems like every year I see producers starting to fertilize way too early,” she said. “They see everything turning green and they think it’s time. It’s time to locate a source, but not time to apply until temperatures warm.”
Fertilizer expense
Corriher-Olson said producers need to be especially mindful of when and how much nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium they apply because prices for most fertilizers and nutrients have increased compared to last year. Recent price checks in East Texas showed diammonium phosphate was $695 per ton; ammonium nitrate was $500 per ton; potash was $465 per ton and ammonium sulfate was $360 per ton.
“Fertilizer prices will be a big challenge for some producers, so they will need to base their decisions on soil tests,” she said. “If they want to cut costs, they need to cut across the board. Don’t focus your investment on nitrogen and forgo potassium or phosphorous. Cutting one for the other creates a nutrient imbalance in the soil.”
Corriher-Olson said producers might find less expensive alternatives like poultry litter or animal manure if proximity makes them economically feasible. However, she said, be careful when searching for low-cost alternatives because non-traditional sources are marketed heavily when traditional fertilizer costs are high.
“These non-traditional sources may make bold claims, so be wary of something that sounds too good to be true,” she said. “Seek out unbiased opinions, your local county agent or soil and forage specialists to determine the value of what you’re buying.”
Drought concerns
The threat of drought is another challenge that could translate into lower production, which compounds higher input costs, Corriher-Olson said.
A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drought outlook for Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas reported worsening conditions for Texas. Western and southern parts of the state were in extreme to exceptional drought, while drought conditions throughout Central Texas reached moderate to severe levels. Conditions were not expected to improve through June.
“Even some parts of East Texas are drying down, so producers need to utilize the moisture to the greatest benefit whether it’s for forage production or grazing,” she said. “We can hope for rain, but producers need to be preparing for drier-than-normal conditions and considering the options that work best for their operations.”
Corriher-Olson said it’s important for producers to make good herd and forage management decisions to maximize cool-season forages while helping warm-season grasses emerge from dormancy.
Most cool-season grasses around the state like ryegrass performed well in much of the state despite Winter Storm Uri, she said. Some oat fields that were not winter-hardy varieties suffered more than other cool-season grasses, but the long freeze set production back more than it physically damaged the crop.
But any setbacks can magnify overall margin losses in a year where input costs are higher and production potential is lower, she said.
“It will be important to remove those cool-season forages by either grazing them out or baling them, to let those warm-season forages grow and capitalize on remaining moisture in the ground,” she said. “You want to maximize the resources you have, but it may mean adjusting stocking rates to prevent overgrazing and leaving stubble height for regrowth so you don’t have to feed hay earlier than you plan.”
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
Soil moisture declined as conditions were warm and very windy with little measurable precipitation. Livestock looked great and were benefiting from the fresh regrowth of winter forages. Stock tanks continued to drop and raised some concerns for livestock producers. The short-term precipitation forecast called for warmer and drier conditions. Septoria and leaf and stripe rusts were reported on winter wheat, and fungicide spraying operations were underway. Post-plant preemergent herbicide applications were also being applied. Corn was fully emerged, and plant stands were very uniform and looked excellent. Most sorghum had emerged and planting neared completion. Cotton acres were expected to be down substantially compared to last year.  
Conditions were cool, windy and dry. Supplemental feeding continued in areas with limited grazing. Farmers were taking advantage of the recent moisture and preparing fields for the upcoming crop year by plowing and applying preemergent herbicides.
Weather conditions were warm, humid and mostly dry. Most areas needed a good soaking rain. Corn, grain sorghum and some cotton had emerged. However, some areas were reporting drought stress and critically low moisture availability for row crops, rangelands and pastures. Rice was emerging in some fields, and planting was almost complete. Livestock were doing well with some spring grass growth. Many pastures and hay fields were being fertilized.
Rain was a general concern across the district. Windy conditions and warmer temperatures continued to dry out the soil. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate. Marion County reported producers were planting gardens. Livestock were doing fair to good with supplemental feeding taking place. Houston County reported growing fly populations. Feral hogs damaged pastures and property.
Subsoil and topsoil moisture levels were poor due to lack of rainfall. Producers were pre-watering and working to get fields prepared for planting season. Cattle were in good condition.
Northern parts of the district reported adequate soil moisture, while central areas reported short to adequate moisture levels. Southern areas reported very short to short soil moisture levels. Pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to good. Winter wheat was in poor to good condition. Wheat in southern parts of the district reported good progress and excellent growing conditions. Corn, cotton and grain sorghum preplant preparations continued despite dry conditions. Some producers started to irrigate winter wheat for silage or hay production. Green-up was slowed by lack of moisture, and cattle were still receiving supplemental feed on range. Stockers were being moved off wheat to market.
Topsoil moisture ranged from short to adequate. Temperatures were moderate with lots of sunshine. Most winter wheat recovered from the winter storm and was doing well. Severe stripe rust was seen in some wheat, and producers were spraying fields with fungicides. Pastures were turning green with sunshine and warmer temperatures. Ryegrass and clovers were flourishing and expected to grow rapidly with continued sun and warmer temperatures. Bermuda grass was starting to become visible. Corn planting started, and early planted fields had emerged. Livestock were in good condition.
Temperature highs ranged from the 80s to mid-60s with lows from the mid-60s to low-40s. No rainfall was reported, and high winds continued. Dry grasslands were a wildfire danger. Rangeland forage remained very limited, so livestock and wildlife were receiving supplemental feed. Producers worked lambs and kid goats and some cattle. Farmers were gearing up for cotton planting. Mesquite trees were still not in bloom, and trees that started to bloom before the winter storm were still not blooming. Pecan orchards were being watered, and pre-irrigation continued for row crops. In the El Paso area, Rio Grande project water will not be released until late May. Some Lower Valley farmers were receiving effluent from the city of El Paso, and others were pumping low-quality water. Negative impacts on soil conditions and crop production were expected. 
Temperatures were near-normal, and conditions were windy. Moisture was needed throughout the district. Producers increased field preparation for summer forage planting, including fertilizer applications. Pecan trees and several other varieties had not broken winter dormancy yet. Sorghum planting was almost complete, and corn planting finished. Supplemental feeding of livestock was slowly decreasing.
Soil moisture was drying despite some scattered rain showers. Conditions were getting very dry, but rice planting was progressing. Livestock were in good condition. Rangeland and pasture ratings were very poor to excellent. Soil moisture levels ranged from very short to adequate.
Dry conditions continued across the district with only slight rainfall reported. Kinney County reported extremely dry topsoil. Fire hazards were in place due to windy conditions. Winter wheat potential looked to be about the same as last year. Spring lambing and kidding continued. Sutton County reported sheep shearing had begun. Livestock were in fair condition. Producers continued to provide supplemental feed to livestock and wildlife.
Soil moisture levels were very short to short. No rain was reported for most of the district, and conditions were windy with fluctuating temperatures. Willacy County reported significant rainfall, and Cameron County reported some drizzle. Forecasts called for 95-degree days in the near future. Dryland oats were playing out in a lot of areas. Irrigated wheat and oats continued to develop. Crops planted on dryland acres struggled to emerge. Early cotton was underway in northern areas and complete in southern areas. Corn, sorghum and cotton were under irrigation. Pastures and rangelands continued to decline due to drought. Supplemental feeding continued for wildlife and livestock. Producers were beginning to run low on hay, and bale prices were rising with averages at $85 per bale. Cattle herds continued to be culled. Irrigated Coastal Bermuda grass fields looked good and should produce bales soon. Producers were fertilizing pastures in areas with some soil moisture. Strawberries recovered from the freeze and were doing well. Crops like watermelons and cantaloupes were planted and being irrigated by water canal systems. Sesame was planted. Sugarcane harvest continued.
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