Dairy owners say drought shriveling profits

Alisa Boswell: Portales News-Tribune Cass Anderson feeds cattle on his family’s dairy near Portales Thursday afternoon. Due to droughts around the West, prices for hay are up while quality and quantity are down, putting stress on dairy finances.

Argen Duncan

While dairy cattle are holding up well in the hot, dry weather, the drought is sending forage prices skyrocketing, cutting profits, local members of the dairy industry have said.

Dairies deal with heat stress in cattle every summer, said Alan Anderson of Anderson Dairy near Portales.

“The problem is the hay shortage,” Anderson said.

Because of drought, farmers haven’t been able to grow as much hay, and with the low quantities, prices rose. Anderson said prices are up to $300 a ton, compared to $160-$180 per ton at this time last year.

The lower-nutrient hay best for cows that aren’t giving milk is hard to find in the drought because it usually comes from rain falling on hay and leaching out the nutrients, Anderson said.

New Mexico State University Dairy Extension Specialist Robert Hagevoort said there’s a shortage of any kind of forage because of the drought around the West, and farmers have to prioritize the use of water.

Heat and wind stress crops, he said, leading to a harvest of less quality because its nutrient content is lower. The harvest of wheat for silage was low in both quality and quantity.

“And we can expect the same with the corn crop if we do not get help from Mother Nature soon,” Hagevoort said.

Even if it does rain soon, the moisture may come too late to reverse the drought stress in the corn, he said.

With grain and other types of cattle feed high-priced like the forage, Hagevoort said, dairy farmers can’t shift to providing less expensive kinds of food.

“The only thing that’s saving the dairyman right now is the milk price — it’s good,” Anderson said.

The price for July is predicted to be a little more than $20 per 100 pounds.

Hagevoort said where dairies could be making up for lost equity when milk prices were low, they’re just breaking even because of high feed costs.

“It’s not a good scenario,” he said. “It’s just one of those things: What are you going to do about it?… I guess we’re going to have to keep our fingers crossed, or pray for rain.”

The high temperatures are also affecting dairy’s cattle, although to a lesser degree than the drought impacts forage costs.

“The cows are doing really quite well,” Anderson said.

The ideal temperature for a cow is 55 degrees, he said, but they can handle higher temperatures with low humidity for about three weeks before getting tired of it.

Hagevoort said in the low humidity, cattle can stay comfortable in the shade. With humidity, he said, cows get heat stress and their milk production drops.

Anderson said cattle prefer to stay in the shade instead of coming to the feeding area to heat when it’s hot, so they don’t give as much milk.

Anderson said cattle also drink more water in the heat, meaning higher electricity bills from pumping his wells more.