You’re supposed to "make hay while the sun shines." But what happens when it doesn’t shine?
For Justin Weatherford, of Florence, S.D., the wet summer and early fall meant putting up about two-thirds of the amount of hay he needs for his approximately 150 ewes and 1,200 feeder lambs. It also means, thanks to runoff filling low spots, that he’s only going to be able to move about a third of his hay home until a hard freeze firms up the ground.
"Things just won’t dry out," he said.
He plans to graze longer, if the weather allows, to stretch his hay supplies.
"It just needs to quit raining," he said. "It just makes it really hard on everything, even the health of the animals, getting the feed put up, everything is more of a struggle."
Brian Schneider, of Steele, N.D., says a lot of land he usually hays was underwater this year. He thinks he’ll have enough hay, and second-cutting alfalfa was put up without rain. That was a rarity.
"We made very few bales that didn’t get rained on," he said.
Buck Becker, of Bismarck, N.D., says he never finished haying.
"I gave up," he said.
Becker says he’ll likely be short on hay, but he’ll use more corn stalks and corn silage instead.
And haying hasn’t been much better in places where it hasn’t been wet. Parts of northern North Dakota spent much of the summer in drought conditions. Erik Knutson, of Mountain, N.D., said he came up about 1,600 bales short of where he’d like to be.
Karl Hoppe, a livestock systems specialist for North Dakota State University Extension based at the Carrington Extension Research Center, said feed tests are important in determining hay quality. Rain won’t usually affect crude protein, but it will decrease energy content.
"This year, we had a lot of rain just prior to cutting, which kept it from being cut at an early enough stage, so a lot of it got to be too mature, so the crude protein and energy content was less because the fiber content was quite a bit higher," Hoppe said. "Then we finally were able to cut it and it rained on it again."
Since hay may have been baled wet or become wet after being baled, mold may be an issue. Mold is an indicator of loss of feed quality, he said, but it also in some cases can lead to bigger problems. Some molds may be harmless and enjoyed by cattle — think humans eating blue cheese — but others can have problematic toxins.
With additional stressors like feed lacking in crude protein, energy and essential vitamins and minerals, mold can be dangerous. Hoppe likens feeding moldy hay to walking off a cliff.
"That last step can be kind of dangerous," he says. "Try to keep your mold issues to a minimum."
Chopping forages, especially the first cutting, or making balage by wrapping wet bales can help reduce problems, Hoppe says.
Feeds other than hay also could have problems this year. Hoppe advises anyone considering feeding rye or wheat to look for signs of ergot.
"Two or three kernels in a handful is worthy of not feeding," he says.
Corn, another cattle feed staple, may be wet or have a light test weight this year. Hoppe says turning cows out into the field is an option, though there can be problems with mold or with cattle eating too much starch and getting acidosis, which can lead to miscarriages, foundering, bloat or death.
Chopping the corn is another option, as is combining. Once corn is dried, even corn that weighs 40 pounds per bushel — compared to a normal weight of 56 pounds per bushel — will work in a ration as well as heavier corn, Hoppe said. However, he cautioned that corn’s nutritional value does go down as it gets lighter, especially as it drops under 40 pounds.
"Buy it by the ton, not by the bushel," he said.