Matt Losack, a dairy farmer from Verona, said things have been rough all summer
"We started feeding hay a month ago," said Losack. "In a normal year, we can put off feeding hay until the first of August. Our corn crop, for the third year in a row, will have to be cut for silage because of the lack of moisture."
The United States Department of Agriculture reported this spring that farmers had planted 96.4 million acres of corn -- the highest number of acres since 1937 -- expecting growing demand from overseas as well as from a strengthening U.S. economy. That led cattlemen to expect corn prices in the range of $5 a bushel. Corn for cattle feed is one of their key costs.
But now the USDA, which had originally projected a record harvest of 14.79 billion bushels, is forecasting that about 60 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is facing drought conditions of varying severity.
The end result will be higher prices for livestock feed. The higher costs will be passed along to consumers, who may feel quite a pinch later this year.
Farmers like Losack have only been able to survive because of crop insurance.
"If it hadn't been for the crop insurance program, we would have went under three years ago," said Losack. "When you spend $12,000 on seed, $8,000 on fertilize and $6,000 pest chemicals, it doesn't take much of a setback to hurt your pocket book."
In the spring, area farmers were able to put up a lot of hay. However, many area farmers were working in a "hay deficit" from the previous year.
"All the three-year old hay we had we fed last winter," said Losack. "This spring helped to catch us up but we weren't able to get second cuttings and all our pasture is now scorched. We were able to buy hay from Sedalia and West Plains last year but now they are in worse shape than we are."
Farmers in Lawrence and Barry counties face difficult choices. With little rain in the extended 90-day forecast and the hay crop already thin, tough decisions are being made.
"It's scary. I have been on the phone trying to find food for our herd," said Losack. "I am looking at hauling silage from Lamar. I never would have thought we would get to that point."
One of the most popular warm-season annuals used by area farmers is sorghum-sudan grass, which has the positive benefits of providing a high nutritional quality food source for cattle. However, one of the negative aspects of sorghum-sudan is its ability to produce cyanide. When plant growth and environmental conditions are correct, the plant will contain high enough levels of cyanide to be toxic to cattle that consume the sorghum-sudan. One of the environmental conditions that can cause elevated levels of cyanide is drought.
"It's bad," said Eldon Cole, livestock Ssecialist for the Extension Service. "Beef producers are worried about turning their herds on to sorghum-sudan pasture. It is times like this when you find out who the good farm managers are."
Cole said farmers are already thinning herds in an attempt to survive the rough period.
"The price of corn is the key for everything," said Cole. "A farm manager has to answer the question 'Do I try to feed out my herd or do I sell?'"
Cattle prices at market have recently dropped, a direct reflection of farmers tightening their belts. While this excess beef will cause prices at the supermarket to drop, the flip side is there will be fewer cattle in production to go to market in the future which will drive prices up at the grocery store.
"It will take three years of ideal conditions for farmers to replace the number of cattle in their herds," predicated Cole. "For those managers who can endure this hardship, the payoff will be good on the back side."
The Losacks thinned their milking herd by 30 head last year in an attempt to compensate for higher feed prices.
Cole does see some positives in this drought.
"We haven't had many complaints about ponds going dry or wells running out of water," said Cole. "Despite the lack of rain, the animals are still able to get much needed hydration."
Losack stated that the heat is tacking a toll on his herd's production. Already hit with a drop in the price of milk from $21 to $15 a hundred. The Losack dairy cows are producing 1,000 pounds less milk per day. He figures that half of every dollar his farm earns goes back into feeding his herd.
"We have lost three cows due to the heat. Right now our goal is just to keep the cows eating enough to produce milk," said Losack. "When an animal eats, the food causes it to produce body heat, so the cows try to limit their food intake as a way to regulate their body heat."
Sprinklers rain down over Losack's herd for 18 hours a day in an attempt to cool the cattle off, but even this cooling measure isn't a perfect solution.
"It's a constant battle of how long to leave the water on," said Losack. "The longer the cattle's feet are wet the softer and more susceptible to a foot injury the cow becomes."
Both Cole and Losack stressed the need to remain calm.
"You can't panic," said Losack. "I have always loved farming and it has been a good business for my family. The decision of whether or not we will continue farming is now in other people's hands. If the Lord sends us rain and the banker continues to work with us then we will continue to farm."