Kyler Thompson rolled a 1,000-pound bale of alfalfa across a pasture north of LaHarpe Wednesday. With each turn a layer of protein-rich forage came off, prompting about 25 cows to come quickly to indulge.
Cows find alfalfa tasty, but, being an expensive commodity, it is given in limited amounts as a supplement to prairie hay, basic wintertime forage for cattle.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture price tracking, alfalfa is fetching upward of $250 a bale, prairie hay about half that much.
When he finished the alfalfa’s distribution, Thompson cropped through four inches of ice covering a nearby pond to open a place for the cows to drink.
The process of feeding and watering is repeated several times each morning in pastures holding the Thompson herd of about 100 cows.
“There are a lot of low ponds this winter,” said Kent Thompson, Kyle’s dad.
Adding to the problem are ponds that have wide muddy margins, and are so low water isn’t found beneath ice near an edge. Cows don’t like to wade through mud and they don’t like to walk on ice.
Nor do farmers want cattle tromping over ice trying to find water.
“I’ve lost calves that broke through the ice,” said Dale Daniels, who farms southeast of Humboldt and also keeps cattle in several pastures.
“If one breaks through and gets its head down in the water there’s a good chance it’ll drown,” he said. “They try to fight out of it and just get in more trouble.”
Daniels placed plastic tanks in three pastures where layers of rock near the surface prevent digging ponds deep enough to hold water in dry times.
“I filled them Saturday and this morning (Wednesday) I cut about three inches of ice in each,” he said.
Ponds elsewhere on Daniels’ farms hold water, but he fears that if a long cold spell occurred, they might freeze dry. Also, he has concerns about having to cut into mud to open water for drinking.
“Cows don’t like to drink muddy water,” he said.
Kent Thompson said he and his son cleaned out several ponds a year ago, when drought also was a problem. That work paid off this summer and into fall when warm weather and wind speeded evaporation of pond water.
He and all who tend cattle would love to see a rain substantial enough to fill ponds, but they know the likelihood is remote.
They wouldn’t turn down a snow, which would be a godsend for wheat and fescue, as well as add some moisture in ponds and sloughs that weave through most pastures.
“WHEAT looks pretty good around here,” said Dave Bedenbender, who farms north of Neosho Falls, an observation also held by Marvin Lynch, at Piqua Farmers Cooperative, and Daniels.
“It was dry last fall and we had the best wheat ever,” Bedenbender said.
Daniels added snow would be helpful.
“It’s kind of like liquid nitrogen,” he said. “After it melts the wheat always looks greener.”
He thinks there is sufficient moisture for wheat to have developed good root systems, but would prefer his to be a tad further along, an outcome moisture would help along.
“We got in some late and it isn’t up as much as we’d like,” he said.
Daniels also has the nagging concern of what might occur if the mercury drops into single digits and lingers. That could cause the ground to heave and hurt young wheat.
“But, wheat’s tough,” he allowed. “It can take a lot of cold and dry weather and still do well.”
The Thompsons are cattlemen, but did dip into farming in August.
“We planted wheat and rye in the dust,” betting that rain would come and the crops would grow enough to produce fall feed for their cows, Thompson said.
That’s exactly what happened.
“We got a good rain in September, which brought up the wheat and rye, and it was the only thing green anywhere,” he said.
The rain — September’s total was 4.76 inches — was also enough to revive fescue.
“It had been dormant for 70 to 75 days,” Thompson said of the cool-season grass.
Unseasonably warm weather in late fall also helped keep pasture grass in the feeding cycle for cattle.
MOST AREA farmers have hay on hand, though in many cases not as much as they would prefer.
“I have enough, unless it gets awfully cold and stays cold,” said Daniels, noting that some area farmers already were feeling a pinch. “I’ve had several calls about buying hay, including some from farmers around here.”
Thompson said his meadows produced about 50 percent of normal rate, but he took advantage when the USDA released CRP grass in two stages, in late August and early September.
“It doesn’t have as much nutrient value as prairie hay cut on schedule,” Thompson said, “but it’s better than nothing.”
That grass is more for filler, said Bedenbender, but it is a component that’s necessary in the life cycle of cattle. Especially when temperatures turn frigid.
“If it warms up a little, they’ll nibble on pasture grass, but when it gets cold they won’t leave the feeder, regardless what’s there for them to eat,” he said. “Big cows will eat a third to 50 percent more when it’s cold, to keep up their body heat.”
Bedenbender, too, said he had hay on hand, but has a bit of an ill feeling going into what usually is the dead of winter.
“We fed an awfully lot of hay in August when the pastures dried up,” he said.
If there is a silver lining to be found with the ongoing drought, it is that feeding cattle isn’t nearly as much of a chore in dry conditions and cattle are more efficient in cleaning up hay put out for them.
“When hay gets wet and muddy, they won’t eat it,” said Daniels.