Friday, August 24, 2012

MANNING — The land is scorched, creeks are shriveling up and hay is scarce on the Wiese family farm, where 1,000 cattle scour the wilted pastures for shade.

None of their signature Hereford or Angus bulls have dropped dead here, but this summer’s extreme heat is taking a toll on the animals that graze on corn silage and weeds since the rich pastures dried up in June, earlier than ever before.

As feed prices continue to soar and water availability quickly dwindles, the Wieses will face tough decisions in the coming months. Their land has been stunted by the nation’s worst drought in five decades.

“We seem to be caught in a bit of trap,” said Gene Wiese, 82, who raises cattle on a farm about a mile southeast of town that his grandfather started in 1903. “Our costs of production have risen dramatically. How we’re combating it is trying to be as efficient as possible, of course, and it’s going to require reducing our numbers.”

Following the hottest July in Iowa ever recorded, temperatures eased slightly this month, averaging 1 to 3 degrees below normal. Yet the drought persists. The latest federal report cast all of Iowa under severe drought, with two-thirds of the state experiencing extreme drought. Nationally, it’s affecting 71 percent of the land used for cattle.

It’s reduced mile-long creeks on the Wiese property to mere puddles and forced them to buy water for their cattle, each of which gulps 20 gallons a day. Newborn calves, deprived of the nutrients from the grass, must be weaned off their mothers earlier. And the Wieses will thin their herds by selling 25 percent of their animals to the market — a 10 percent increase from typical years.

But if the drought continues, feed costs could double and prices will continue to rise. The Wieses constantly check the radar for rain, the remedy to keep expenses down and replenish dangerously low aquifer levels.

“We’re hopeful for fall rains,” Gene Wiese said. “And we’re hopeful for enough snow to fill ponds and dams and anywhere we can get a water supply that would help get us through the next spring and summer.”

Relief could be on the horizon, but it’s too soon to tell, experts say. Historically, wet falls are preceded by dry summers, said meteorologist Craig Cogil, of the National Weather Service office in Johnston. There is no such correlation for temperature, but about 80 percent of fall seasons following a dry summer will experience normal or above normal rainfall, he said.

In the meantime, farmers are bracing for the worst.

Tom Shipley, a beef production specialist at 360 Feeds Branch in Ralston, said many of his customers are being proactive and already preparing for the winter.

“It’s been good to see that people are asking the right questions and getting plans in place,” he said. “Just making sure they have feed, making silage. Getting their hay supply secured.”

Many are also testing their silage for high nitrate levels, which can build up in the corn stalk from fertilizer when the corn doesn’t make an ear. It will kill a cow that eats it within minutes because it prevents the animal’s blood from carrying enough oxygen to live.

Of the several-reported cow deaths in Carroll County this summer, none have been the result of toxic silage, said veterinarian Todd Nelson of the Carroll Veterinary Clinic. But he said he’s learned of a few in neighboring counties.

To avoid costly corn and risky silage, many farmers are digging into their pockets for alternative types of feed like soybeans, gluten and wheat middlings, where prices are also spiking due to increased demand.

Water availability concerns Barry Kniest more than feed costs, though.

“Its hard to know how much water is down there,” said the Manning feedlot owner over the hum of a silage chopper he operated. “We just know that the water has dropped drastically.”

He pumps water from his own well and cools his 1,500 cattle with a sprinkler system but tries to conserve as much of the precious resource that he can. As he braces for winter, he said he will try to make a good thing out of a bad situation.

Surging costs will ultimately dictate his decisions this season. If cost per gain continues to rise — it’s about $1 per pound of gain now — Kniest will have to sell his cows earlier and buy back fewer of them. He feeds the ethanol byproducts — gluten, grain, and syrup — but predicts those prices will surge due to the bad corn crop.

He typically raises 1,200 cattle on his land and buys 300 from other sources, but this fall he may not be able to afford to replenish his herd. The fewer cows he buys back, the more his revenue sinks.

Consumers will feel it, too, he said. Producers will sell fewer cattle earlier and at a lighter weight. There will be less meat to go around.

“All this is going to have a real trickle-down effect to the whole picture of agriculture,” he said.  

For Gene Wiese, that image is still hopeful, but if the drought endures, the costs could be crippling, he said.

“Anybody in the cattle business that I’ve experienced in my lifetime and career in business — they are born optimists,” he said.  “We’d be hopeful that agriculture could sustain a tough year or two.”