Drought, Crop Shortages Raise Feed Concerns for Texas Dairies

August 12, 2011 06:50 AM

Feed costs soar; some dairies down to less than 30 days’ supply of forages. 

A scorching summer that has withered Texas crops has the state’s dairies worried whether they’ll have enough feed for their herds over the next several months.

Crops of corn silage, alfalfa hay and other forages reduced by extreme heat and drought mean feed staples will be short, and dairy producers will be looking to Nebraska, Wyoming and even as far north as Canada for supplies.

“It’s the shortest supply we’ve ever seen,” says Darren Turley, executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen. “Some dairies are down to less than 30 days’ supply of forages.”

“I’ve been here seven and a half years,” says producer Joe Osterkamp, a California transplant who now milks 3,000 cows near Muleshoe, in the Texas Panhandle. “This is probably the most severe situation the industry here has faced where feed is concerned. It’s especially tough when you’re used to abundant feed supplies, and now they’re not there. It’s a real struggle to secure feed needs.”

The tight supply has sent prices for feed commodities soaring in Texas, the nation’s sixth-largest milk producer. Corn-based feed for dairies “is way out of its normal range at over $200 per ton,” Osterkamp says. Producers are paying in the $300 per-ton range for flaked corn, and the mid-$200 range for DDGs. Ground corn delivered to a dairy has been quoted at $326 per ton.

Osterkamp says many local farmers followed the run-up in the commodities market, choosing to plant high-priced corn and cotton instead of alfalfa. Reduced hay acreage has lifted prices for top-quality alfalfa hay to $300-$320 per ton. Grass hay commands $200 per ton.

The state’s drought-hit cotton crop means there will be far less cottonseed than normal, boosting prices for the dairy feed commodity to $450 per ton, according to Turley.

“Producers are feeling the weight of these circumstances,” he says. “Good milk prices are the only State officials say Texas is suffering through the “most severe one-year drought on record” and recorded the hottest July in the history of the Lone Star State.

Harvesting corn for silage has already begun in the Panhandle, home to some 200,000 dairy cows. Typically, it starts in large August or early September.

“The drought has taken its toll on our corn crop,” says Osterkamp. “We’ll probably be down by 30-40% on our corn silage production, which is one of our major forages.”

Osterkamp says that despite adequate irrigation water, the summer was so hot and dry, “we couldn’t get water on our crops fast enough.”

So far, dairy herd numbers have not dropped, Turley says. Dairies have had adequate water for their daily operations, like flushing and tank cooling. Milk production has not fallen off either, but many are eager to see July’s production numbers.

Texas is home to about 550 dairy herds and 434,000 dairy cows. USDA’s July 2011 Milk Production report showed Texas with an output of 880 million pounds of milk for June 2011.

Osterkamp says he’s heard rumors that some dairies may have to reduce herd sizes and face lower milk production as they rely on lower-quality feed to get through the coming months.

“Coming off the last two years, with the problems we had with low margins, it feels like we’re getting kicked by something we didn’t foresee, just when we finally have these great milk prices,” Osterkamp says.

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