COLUMBIA, Mo. – Over the phone, 44 Missouri dairy farmers and extension specialists shared ideas on how to feed dairy cows through the winter after a historic drought cut feed and forage supplies.

The University of Missouri Extension specialists made brief talks, then opened the phones.

Matt Waldron, MU dairy nutritionist, asked all to think of feeds not usually used, such as broken bakery byproducts, to get extra energy for their cow rations.

The most urgent news was to plant seeds early to grow winter annual cereal grains ahead of anticipated fall rains. Sept. 1 is planting time, although parched fields may look like they will never grow again.

If seed is not in the ground, you can’t grow a crop, Rob Kallenbach, MU forage specialist, tells every group he visits. “By Oct. 1, your chances are pretty well over.”

Waldron told his plans for the dairy herd at MU Foremost Farm near Columbia. “I’ve bought 96 acres of cornstalks in a neighbor’s field.” The corn won’t make grain as expected but will be chopped into silage.

Also, he will plant oats to provide forage for the dairy research herd.

Kallenbach recommended three cereal grains to plant for forage. For producing the most grass per acre, oats headed his list. Others are cereal rye and wheat. Oats won’t live through the winter but others can provide grazing next spring

Joe Horner, MU economist and teleconference organizer, added, “I expect to see lots of the winter wheat to go into silage to feed dairy and beef cows.” Cereal crops can be stored in silos or bagged in plastic.

Discussion followed on equipment needed to handle alternative feeds. New ways of feeding will be invented, they agreed.

The cereal grains can be seeded into bare cornfields cut for silage. Or grains can be drilled into dried-up pastures. The earlier the planting, the longer the fall growing season and the greater the potential yield. All depends on the return of rain.

Kallenbach warns farmers, “No matter what you plant, nothing will grow if the rains don’t come. The soil is totally dry.”

A hot topic for producers is risk of high nitrates in cornstalks that did not produce ears of corn. Nitrogen taken up by corn roots did not make kernels of corn on the cob. Residual nitrogen in cornstalks can become deadlier nitrites in the cow’s rumen.

At worst, nitrates can kill cows. More likely, low doses will cause cows to lose unborn calves, lower milk production or become lethargic.

Cornstalks are not the only nitrate threat. Tests at the MU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab show dangerous levels of nitrates in fescue, pigweeds, Johnson grass and millet, among others. Any drought-damaged forage can be dangerous.

Cutting and ensiling standing corn can reduce nitrate content by 25 to 50 percent after 60 days of fermentation in a silo.

Advice from MU Extension veterinarian Scott Poock was to test forages going into the silo—and the feed coming out. The cost of forage testing is less than the cost of a dead cow.

Waldron came back to add that nutrient analysis as well as nitrate tests should be run on all feed. That allows a nutritionist to write an adequate milking ration for cows.

Without a forage test, no one would know how many broken cookies could be used to add energy to the grain deficit silage. “I’m really concerned about energy levels,” Waldron said.

A dairy producer broke in to ask how to compare feed values of high-priced corn with hominy, which is available in truckloads nearby. He was referred to the list of byproduct feeds updated weekly on the MU AgEBB website.

Horner, MU Extension economist, started the call-ins to reach dairy farmers who don’t have a nearby dairy extension specialist. But any dairy producer can call in for the biweekly “talk shows.”

Farmers can find the call-in number, listen to past calls and find drought guides at the teleconference website at

The noon-hour calls will be held every two weeks this fall on Mondays. The next one is Sept. 10.

The first call-in was a learning experience, Horner admits. On future calls, people will be asked to identify themselves every time they chime in. And callers will be asked to call from a quiet environment with phones on mute. One cough wipes out words in the messages.

In addition to other callers, Ted Probert, regional dairy specialist at Hartville, Mo., had 23 farmers listening on his speakerphone. They had been on a monthly pasture walk that morning.

The programs are part of the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, MU Commercial Agriculture and MU Extension.

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