Drought, Fertilizer Cloud Forage View

Forage Growers Confront Expanding Drought, High Fertilizer Prices

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Forage producers face a double whammy this growing season with drought expanding and extremely high fertilizer prices. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Seth Wilbanks really is not sure what his fertilization plan will be with his pasture and hay acres this growing season. The Hughesville, Missouri, farmer and cow-calf producer is still considering his options as decision time nears.

"I think a lot of folks around here are sitting tight and wondering what to do," Wilbanks told DTN. "I will be putting some (fertilizer) down, I just don't know how much."

Forage producers face an uncertain spring of preparing forage with two enormous factors hovering over them. The record-high price of fertilizer and severe drought are on the minds of many producers.


Last summer, Northern Plains cow-calf producers suffered through deep culling of their herds. Unless spring rains pick up, this selling could spread south into other dry regions.

Various degrees of drought stretch from the Canadian border clear through Texas, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/…). Some areas of D4 drought (exceptional drought) can be found in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and in parts of southwestern Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas.

Large swaths of central and west Texas are in severe drought, according to Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension forage specialist. While drought will affect forage production in the state, there are several different management practices that can be used to minimize the effect of dry conditions, she said.

Reducing stocking rates will be critical if forage is limited this growing season. The longer decisions to decrease livestock numbers are delayed, the sooner the forage supply will be exhausted, she stressed.

Corriher-Olson said the lack of moisture suppresses plant growth and slows root development. Allow 6 to 8 inches of new growth before allowing livestock to graze, she recommended.

Healthy pastures should have 3 to 6 inches of stubble; overgrazing plants removes the buds needed for regrowth. If insufficient stubble remains, water capture and infiltration will be greatly reduced, she said.

"If pastures are managed properly during times of low moisture, the effects of drought will be less severe and pastures will rebound faster when precipitation is sufficient," Corriher-Olson said.


The dry conditions could be forcing difficult decisions for many cow-calf producers this growing season. Last year, it was those in the Northern Plains forced to make these tough choices (https://www.dtnpf.com/…) and (https://www.dtnpf.com/…).

This year, the same decisions could be made in much of Nebraska, which faces drought conditions.

Casey Schuhmacher, a cow-calf and stocker producer from Chadron, Nebraska, told DTN livestock producers in northwestern Nebraska are currently buying hay to tide them over until the grass is ready. Additional challenges include finding enough trucks to haul the hay, the nearly constant windy conditions seen this spring and $5-per-gallon diesel fuel.

The tri-state region of northwest Nebraska, southwestern South Dakota and eastern Wyoming has seen extremely spotty moisture this spring, he said. This comes after an fairly open winter that saved some hay supplies, as most everyone was able to continue to graze during the winter.

"The winds have been brutal this spring, drying up what little moisture we've received before it's had a chance to soak in," Schuhmacher told DTN.

Most producers are living on day-to-day plans with some possible plans on the back burner if the dry conditions stick around during the growing season, he said. Everything really hinges on if the region sees adequate moisture.

Schuhmacher said many folks are already aggressively culling cows as they are calving now, both with pairs and open cattle. He estimates the culling rate could increase if significant moisture does not fall before May 15.

"Hurry up and wait seems to be where we are stuck," he said.


The other big issue facing many forage producers is the significantly higher fertilizer prices from last growing season. Many forage producers are being forced to reassess their nutrient applications.

According to retail fertilizer prices tracked by DTN, most fertilizers continue to be considerably higher in prices than one year earlier.

10-34-0 is 49% more expensive, MAP is 53% higher, DAP is 68% more expensive, UAN28 is 83% higher, UAN32 is 89% more expensive, urea is 100% is higher, potash is 103% higher and anhydrous is 119% more expensive compared to last year. (See https://www.dtnpf.com/….)

Wilbanks, the Missouri farmer and cow-calf producer, told DTN his grass pastures and hay fields are a bit behind normal growth because of the low temperatures this spring.

The good news is his region of central Missouri saw plenty of moisture during the winter into this spring. The grass is beginning to grow, and Wilbanks has some cow-calf pairs already grazing.

His biggest concern as the growing season begins is how to handle applying fertilizer. He estimated his fertilizer costs on his pasture/hay ground last year to be about $40-$45 per acre. This year, it will be probably more than $100 per acre.

While not 100% certain what he is going to do, Wilbanks said he is leaning toward cutting back on his phosphorus and potash applications and continuing to put on the same amount of nitrogen.

"I have a well-established neighbor who is planning on fertilizing all of his pasture and hay acres," Wilbanks said. "Those of us younger guys are going to be scaling back some I think."

This plan would have some flexibility, he said. If fertilizer prices were to decline, he could put down some P and K on his fescues, clover and orchardgrass acres yet this summer.

However, he is not planning on fertilizer prices declining any time soon, he said.

Wilbanks said his normal fertilization plan would be to apply fertilizer to all his hay acres. Most of his pasture acres would also see a nutrient application as well.


Corriher-Olson said there are things forage producers can do to limit fertilizer use while trying to maintain yields.

First, soil test -- this remains the best management tool to monitor soil fertility levels. Applying fertilizer without having taken a soil test amounts to guessing how much fertilizer is needed, she said.

Second, producers should also choose the most adequate fertilizer source. When choosing the right fertilizer source, it is important to consider price, fertilizer effectiveness, method and rate of application.

Third, consider the timing and rate of fertilizer applications. Fertilizer should be applied when the forage is actively growing, Corriher-Olson said.

Fourth, use animal manures as a possible alternative to commercial fertilizers. Remember, when using manure, that the nitrogen present in these sources is not readily available to plants, and total nitrogen is often a poor indicator of nitrogen availability.

Many forage producers may select not to apply any fertilizer at all this growing season because of high costs. If this is the case, producers will need to change their grazing or harvesting management, she said.

"Our warm-season grasses will not persist on no nutrients, continued grazing or harvesting while in drought conditions," Corriher-Olson said. "Hopefully, producers are mindful of the impact this can have long term on their forage stands."

North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension recently held a webinar titled "Drought, Forage and Grazing Outlook," which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/….

For more on feeding cow-calf pairs during a drought, see https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN

Russ Quinn