Weather takes its toil on Barry County farmers

Thursday, February 15, 2007

After receiving little moisture last year, area dairy and beef producers were not adequately prepared for the ice storm that covered southwest Missouri last month.

"We were out of power for 10 days," said Kent Arnaud, who runs a 1,300-acre beef operation north of Purdy with his father, Victor. "The power outage was an inconvenience, but that doesn't compare to all the fence damage we have. It's going to be a long process and take a long time to get everything back in order."

"We were affected by the ice just like other area producers," said Richard Crawford, who is superintendent of the Southwest Research Center in Mount Vernon. "This year feed costs have gone sky high with corn prices up and hay on short supply. When we got the ice on top of that, it made the situation much worse."

"We have quite a bit of damaged fence, just like everyone else," said Jerry Varner, who owns a 126-acre dairy farm southwest of Washburn. "During the storm we were unrolling hay bales to give the cows a place to lay to get off of the ice. Now we are in a nip and tuck situation with forage and really hoping for an early spring."

The January ice storm, which kept local students out of school and left a large number of residents without power, will cause hardships on local producers for many months.

"We have fences that we are not even able to get to yet," said Arnaud. "There are places where you can't get your cattle through the woods. It looks like a tornado came through and just topped everything."

Prior to the ice storm, Barry County received large quantities of moisture, which softened the ground and left many trees unstable when the ice began to fall on Jan. 12, said Arnaud.

"We have trees that have just turned out of the ground," said Arnaud. "We have one pasture that looks like someone dropped pick up sticks across it, but the sticks are big logs."

A local logger has been recruited to evaluate the amount of useable lumber on the Arnaud farm, but Arnaud believes he will still need to bulldoze some areas to prepare pastures for grazing this summer. He estimated that around 75 percent of his fence received some form of damage from the ice storm.

"We are just fixing fence and pastures as we need to move the cattle," said Arnaud. "It will be a very long process, but everybody will be dealing with it. They got hit a lot harder up north so I don't feel I have anything to complain about."

"All of our trees are almost completely destroyed," said Crawford, of the Mt. Vernon-based research center. "We have so many limbs down. In our pastures we have areas with huge piles of limbs. The damage is so widespread. There are repairs and clean-up needed everywhere you look."

Although southwest Missouri desperately needed moisture after receiving below normal rainfall over the last two years, winter is not the ideal time to catch up on moisture, said Mike Meier, who owns a 240-acre dairy farm near Purdy.

"We were around 16 inches behind in moisture last year and 13 or 14 inches behind the year before that so we are catching up now," said Meier. "I just hate that we are catching up during winter."

Meier's dairy operation was especially hard hit by the winter weather because he has been in the process of converting his farm into a pasture-based dairy over the last two years.

"We have been converting from corn silage to warm weather grasses that the cows could graze and all of our stands were new," said Meier. "During the drought we had a hard time establishing the stands, so we went into this winter with no forage surplus. We've had to purchase alfalfa for the dairy cows, which is running around $180 per ton."

Alfalfa usually costs around $115 per ton. Due to low-moisture and short hay supplies, prices for fescue and other forms of forage have also increased this year, said Varner.

"With the weather and the shortage, we don't have adequate forage supplies now," said Meier. "We will just estimate how much we have to feed each day and stretch out our supply to make it through the next few months."

"During the week and a half that the ground was covered by ice we used hay at a lot higher rate than usual," said Arnaud. "Usually we have a small surplus of hay at the end of the season, but this year we will be cutting it awfully close, and if we get another round of winter weather where the ground is covered, we will run out."

Most years, Arnaud is able to share his hay supply with local producers in need of a few extra bales of forage, but this year he is working to find those producers forage elsewhere.

"At this point, I can't find hay anywhere," said Arnaud. "People are calling everywhere. If producers had plenty of hay this year, the storm wouldn't have affected us quite as badly."

"The cattle need more energy when it gets as cold as it has gotten," said Crawford. "You have to feed more or your cattle lose weight."

Crawford estimates that the research center's cattle will need around 25 pounds of forage per head per day for the next couple of months. With hay prices up by around 50 percent this year, that adds substantial costs to most area operations.

"Usually we don't see any kind of substantial forage until sometime in April," said Varner. "That means we will need to feed forage for another 45 to 60 days. We are trying to calculate if we have enough hay to last that long. I think if things go smoothly, we'll make it, but if we have another storm like the one in January we will be shot."

Arnaud said he is now concentrating on making sure his cattle do not waste the forage that he puts out as feed.

"We will feed smaller amounts at a time," said Arnaud. "Instead of putting out more hay, we will feed twice a day or more to make sure they aren't wasting."

Further complicating the winter weather and forage shortage situation, Arnaud's cattle began calving the week after the ice storm.

"We didn't have too many during the real bad part of the storm," said Arnaud, "but we have had between 80 and 90 calves since the ice storm. The rain we're getting now is not too good on them either."

To help ensure the health of his cattle and calves, Arnaud has begun scheduling feeding times in the later afternoon and evening.

"The theory is that if you feed your cows in the evening, they will eat through the night and have their calves during the day time when it is warmer and you are around to check them," said Arnaud.

Although local producers can take small steps to save forage and ensure cattle health, an early spring will have the largest affect on area operations.

"With all the rain and water we've been getting if we get some warm temperatures, spring could jump up on us," said Varner, who hopes to see nutritious grass that cattle can eat by mid-April.

"We're hoping for an early spring, but we're afraid to look at it too closely," said Arnaud. "My dad is 74 years old, and he has never saw anything like the conditions we've been dealing with this year."

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