In normal years, harvest brings with it the anticipation of bins full or overflowing with corn and soybeans, but this year’s drought has changed such expectations.

For producers in the driest areas of the corn growing regions, the reality involves short corn stalks, small ears and fewer kernels. In Minnesota, our crop will be smaller than “normal,” but our overall yield will be among the nation’s highest.

For all producers this year’s harvest is accompanied by high prices, with expectations of substantially higher prices before sufficient rationing occurs. Now the question is: Was this a one-year drought or will we face a multi-year shortage of feed ingredients?

Historically, the grain trade functions with the expectation that “short crops have short tails.” With high prices at harvest and potentially limited supplies, producers who grow some or all of their feed-grain needs face two options:

  1. Feed your harvested grain this fall and purchase supplies next summer when prices decline — if you believe that short crops have short tails and next summer’s crop will be closer to historic trendline yields.
  2. Buy expensive grain to feed this fall and use stored grain next summer to ensure a feed supply if you’re concerned about another drought or tight supplies next summer.

At a recent meeting, John Goihl, a consulting swine nutritionist, based in Minnesota, put high feed-grain prices and limited supplies in perspective. He noted that there are really two different scenarios to manage swine nutrition programs in the coming year.

Scenario one is that producers assume ingredient supplies (not necessarily corn or soybean meal) will be adequate, and the challenge is to identify and purchase alternative ingredients. The underlying nutrient specifications and expectations of pig performance won’t change much as the diets are formulated.

The challenge is the timing of alternative ingredient purchases, the nutrient profile variations of many alternative ingredients and the associated storage and handling issues that such ingredients pose to the milling and mixing process.

The other scenario is when diets are formulated with the goal of extending a supply of limited ingredients. In this case, pig performance assumptions and the basis for formulating the diets change. World soybean and soybean meal supplies are projected to be very tight next summer.

If that’s the case, many producers and nutritionists may be forced to formulate diets to stretch soybean meal supplies until new-crop soybeans start to appear around Sept. 1, 2013.

What will your diets look like if you have to stretch 10 months of soybean meal into 12 months of diets? How much performance are you willing to give up? Will there be any alternatives that you can add to extend your limited soybean meal supply?

When I first began my career as an Extension swine specialist in the late 1970s, the corn varieties and agronomic practices meant dry years had a marked impact on corn yields. Irrigation was just moving out of the Platte Valley in Nebraska, so most grain production was non-irrigated. If dry conditions dropped corn harvest one year, many livestock producers planted barley the following spring on some acres.

I remember standing at a producer’s granary one summer, looking at his recent barley harvest. The producer said he always planted barley following a short fall harvest because it gave him a feed ingredient in mid-July to stretch the short corn supply.

Many producers face the same situation this year: How do we extend limited feed-grain supplies until the new crop becomes available next fall?

It appears the more appropriate crop for many this year is winter wheat. It’s already grown in the southern tier of the Midwest Corn Belt. Producers in the southern half of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have a grain merchandising system with bins identified to store this ingredient, as well as pricing experience.

Sources tell me that winter wheat is eligible for insurance coverage just as corn and soybeans are, so there’s revenue protection. But if you’re considering winter wheat for your cropping mix check with your crop insurance agent, as it may be questionable to double-crop with soybeans following wheat.

Wheat has a very good nutrient profile for swine diets and will stretch limited soybean meal supplies. Wheat’s energy value is higher than that of many barley varieties, so summer hog performance won’t be reduced as much with wheat-based diets. The downside is wheat’s tendency to “flour” in the milling process. If not controlled, it can result in palatability issues.

Some producers and grain market specialists in western Minnesota are talking with South Dakota producers about contracting for acres or bushels of winter wheat for delivery next summer. It would appear logical that producers in the eastern Corn Belt also could contract with winter wheat growers in their region to access bushels by mid-July.

This is one year that it’s nice to be an advisor and only have to provide opinions, versus having to make long-term decisions based on a myriad of opinions.