Extreme to exceptional drought conditions across Oklahoma dried up much of the hay and forage crops needed to keep cattle herds healthy through the winter.
Not only are food sources scarce, experts say, the forage available could be toxic to livestock. The combination of drought and unseasonably hot weather boosts nitrate levels in sorghum, corn and other forage crops, and can be deadly.
Andy Qualls, Muskogee County Conservation District technician, said rapidly developing drought conditions causes a rapid uptake of nitrogen. When temperatures exceed 95 degrees, plant growth is stunted. As a result, stored nitrogen becomes trapped in the plants.
“The nitrate problem is particularly bad this year,” Qualls said. “Livestock is especially susceptible, and this can cause death.”
Ranchers who plan to use forage crops that accumulate nitrates during hot, dry seasons, Qualls said, are encouraged to have the forage tested. The Oklahoma State University Extension Service provides that service.
Qualls said nitrogen levels can vary widely from one end of the field to another. As a result, he recommends testing samples from every fourth or fifth bale for locally produced forage.
“If you had it hauled in, you may want to test every bale,” Qualls said.
Besides the problems associated with the accumulation of nitrates in forage crops, area ranchers say regular hay supplies are scarce.
Frank Bartholet, a local cattleman who hays about a thousand acres in the county, said he doesn’t plan to sell any hay this year because he will need every bale he has for winter feed.
“We’re running short just like everybody else around here, but not as bad as some,” Bartholet said. “We used weed spray and put out fertilizer, so our hay crop is not as short. But we’ve got a lot of money in it.”
Bartholet said it takes about 2,500 large, round bales of hay — mostly Bermuda grass — to keep his livestock fed each winter. He said if the weather doesn’t improve, he may come up a little short.
Qualls said recent showers have helped green up the pastures a little bit, and a little more rain could extend the growing season.
“What we haven’t had are the soaking rains we need to keep it growing,” Qualls said. “What we need is something more like a tropical depression.”
Joe Sellers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tulsa, said that doesn’t appear likely in the foreseeable future.
“At least not the period we’re willing to stick our necks out on,” Sellers said about the chance of seeing any significant rainfall. “The trend for the next three months is favoring below normal precipitation.”
Sellers said eastern Oklahoma normally would receive 12.29 inches of rainfall from September through November. That doesn’t appear likely right now, Sellers said, noting drought conditions could persist for some time.
Qualls said area ranchers have a number of options available, like sowing cool-season grasses during the winter months and weaning calves earlier.
“Farmers have to be the eternal optimists,” Qualls said. “If they weren’t, they would have quit a long time ago.”
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Oklahoma State University Beef Extension offers numerous resources for ranchers who are dealing the ongoing drought. That information, which includes current weather conditions, drought forecasts, cattle stress projections, and a number of pamphlets with information about drought management and strategies, may be accessed online at www.beefextension.com/new site 2/Drought.html.