HATTON — When Jeff Jones drove out to his pasture Monday with three buckets of barley and other grains for his cattle, the livestock couldn't wait for him to pour it out.

By the time he had emptied the second five-gallon bucket, several cows crowding around his pickup truck had already knocked over the third and were quickly finishing it off.

The field looks green from the road, Jones said, but there is little nutrition there for his animals. The tallest plants were rat's tail, an invasive weed with little nutritional value that cows avoid, with stunted Korean lespedeza.

“That grass this year ought to be about this tall,” Jones said, holding his hand at his thigh. “They would be standing knee-high in the grass and you can see that there’s hardly any grass there at all.”

 

The drought affecting Missouri farmers this year has driven up hay prices and forced farmers to switch from ponds to well water or public water supplies. Farmers are selling livestock, sending beef prices to one of the lowest levels in the past decade, and cut estimates of corn yields by about 20 percent.

On Monday, Gov. Mike Parson, along with several cabinet officials and representatives of farm groups, announced steps to make state grass and water available. Farmers and ranchers will be able to haul water from several state park and conservation areas and enter a lottery to mow hay on almost 900 acres of state-owned grasslands, Parson said.

During a news conference, Parson said the actions will help farmers manage the higher costs of sustaining their operations through the drought.

“Maybe we save some people’s businesses and farms out there and that’s what we are trying to do here today,” Parson said.

 

The Department of Natural Resources will conduct a lottery for hay cutting at 14 state parks and conservation areas, including 80 acres at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in Boone County. Water may be taken from lakes and ponds at more than 30 locations, including Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area, Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation Area and Finger Lakes State Park in Boone County.

Much of Missouri received rain Sunday evening and early Monday, and while participants in Parson’s news conference said it was helpful, it wasn’t enough. The National Weather Services recorded 0.31 inches of rain in Columbia overnight, bringing the total for the month to just under 1 inch. Since June 1, Columbia has received only half the average rainfall and the deficit for the year is more than 10 inches.

“These forages out in the field – just because we are getting some rain now doesn’t mean these forages are going to come back,” said Lloyd Gunter of the Missouri Dairy Association.

When the growing season began, Missouri was already short of rain but most of the state was not yet feeling drought conditions.

In mid-May, when most planting completed, only half the state was experiencing dry conditions and only a small fraction, 15 percent, was actually in what is termed moderate drought. Corn farmers rated their crop 71 percent good or excellent and 84 percent of livestock producers said they had enough water.

As of last Tuesday, 25 percent of the state, including most of Boone County, was in extreme drought and the fraction listed in exceptional drought included the Rocheport area and most of Howard County. Corn farmers are far more pessimistic about their fields, with 44 percent calling their crop poor or very poor in the weekly U.S. Department of Agriculture crop condition report released Monday. Fewer than half of the state's livestock producers had enough water and 80 percent were short of hay and other feed.

For cattle farmers, the drought means there is little grass to mow for hay for the winter and pastures are not producing enough to sustain herds through the summer. Jones runs Jones Angus Farms in Callaway County, where he and his family manage 300 cows and several hundred acres of row crops used to feed them.

“It is having a major impact,”  Jones said. “It takes a lot of water to raise grass and there’s not a lot of water out there.”

During the last major drought, in 2012, Jones connected watering troughs to public water supplies and it's his last option if his wells go dry.

Importing hay from other states means prices have shot up and the transportation costs also are expensive, he said.

“The trucking is going to amount to as much as the hay itself,” Jones said.

Parson owns a cattle farm in Polk County and is experiencing the effects of the drought himself. He is now using hay to feed livestock.

“I have never fed hay in August in my entire career,” Parson said.

rkeller@columbiatribune.com

(573) 815-1709