ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missouri cropland is so dry from last summer's extreme heat and lack of rainfall that University of Missouri researchers said the state would need 13 feet of snow this winter to make up for it.
That's probably not going to happen, though, and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/rHcs1g) reported Sunday that the lack of moisture could soon have an impact on consumers.
"If we don't get enough input over the next few months, we could go into the next season without enough moisture," said Randy Miles, a soil scientist at the university. "Even though it might not be that amenable to some, and it may create some slushy driving hazards and so on, from a soil moisture viewpoint, more snow and rain may be more valuable long term."
Missouri corn farmers lost about 24 million bushels of yield last summer, and soybean producers lost about 20 million bushels. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 101 Missouri counties as natural disaster areas, with one estimate putting the loss to the state's grain farmers at nearly $350 million.
"In mid-Missouri and particularly as you go southwest, (the soil) was pretty well depleted four to six feet down. There's not much left there for plant growth," Miles said. "We need to recharge the piggy bank, so to speak."
Record drought conditions got the most attention in parts of Texas and Oklahoma, but Missouri was hit hard, too. In addition to crop farmers, the state's dairy and cattle industries also are scrambling to deal with the drought's impact.
Missouri is the nation's third-largest producer of hay, but the summer conditions scorched pasture and forage lands, causing a shortage of the now-precious commodity.
That has caused farmers from neighboring states shipping what they can from Missouri to get through the winter.
"I had to drive 100 miles north, to get it from a guy in Green Ridge," said Darrel Franson, a cattle farmer who heads the Missouri Forage and Grassland Council. "In the half an hour I'm talking to him, his phone rings three times, with producers from Texas willing to buy anything he's got, at any price."
Cattle ranchers and dairy farmers typically grow much of the hay they feed their animals, but this year they were forced to feed hay months earlier than they normally would have because pasture land was burnt up.
Some farmers are worried that producers won't have enough to feed their animals by mid-winter.
"In January or February, the farmer is going to take a walk out into his pasture and see his cows are thin. He's going to run in and say, "Ma, the cows are awful thin.' Then they're going to look at the ground and see there's no grass there," Franson said. "They're going to get on the phone to get some hay, and they won't find any."
Dairy farmers are facing not just a shortage in hay, but lower quality, as well. Dairy cows need better-quality hay to produce better milk, but hay that survives harsh summer conditions isn't the most nutritious, meaning cows need more of it.
Because of that, producers are paying as much as $300 a ton for higher-quality hay, far higher than normal.
"This is going to be one of the toughest challenges I've seen in my lifetime, seeing these cows through the winter," said Larry Purdom, head of the Missouri Dairy Association. "A lot of times in the past when hay prices were up, we could use corn, but that's been at record highs, and that's expensive now, too."
Purdom said the state's dairy herd has shrunk from 100,000 cows in recent years to about 90,000, and that could go even smaller as aging dairy farmers sell their cows and get out of the business instead of paying the higher feeds prices.
"This is serious," Purdom said. "We have eight or nine processing plants in the state, and if we don't have milk for them, we're worried they'll take their operations somewhere else, and that means jobs."
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com