Of course, the corn plant has to make an ear first to have grain for harvest. In the worst drought-stricken areas of the country, the corn and other crops may never mature. Then producers are faced with the challenges of salvaging the standing corn plants and turning them into silage or baleage.

This brings up another potential weather-stressed feed problem: nitrates. Water quality already is a concern because of nitrates, sulfates and total dissolved solids creating potential health issues for livestock. Stunted corn will have nitrates that it was transporting in the stalks to make an ear of corn. Without adequate moisture, the corn plant shuts down seed formation. That leaves a high concentration of nitrate in the stalks. However, if you know the level of nitrate in your feed, you can dilute it with other feeds. So nitrate in feed generally is manageable.

Livestock producers have many ways to utilize those marginal crops for feed, from as basic as placing electrified wire around the field as a temporary fence to making baleage. In 2009, when mold and wet conditions were the challenge, a common practice for cattlemen was to fence and graze standing corn fields not harvested, although I recall concerns about grain overload from livestock munching on the ears.

If you have plans of haying the crop, then keep in mind that raising the cutter bar leaves the highest concentration of nitrate (found in the stalk) in the field. The obvious drawback is the loss of precious feed because it’s not harvested.

An alternative is to ensile it. But reducing the nitrate takes time, and a minimum wait of 30 days is necessary before feeding it as silage to allow time to reduce much of the nitrates in the forage. Unfortunately, many farms no longer raise livestock and, therefore, no longer have forage-harvesting equipment to easily salvage fields or portions of fields that may not be suitable for combining.

More than 50 percent of the corn silage samples submitted for nitrate testing so far this summer have tested above the “safe” threshold for mature cattle, according to Dairyland Laboratories Inc.

Mid-July is critical for farmers and ranchers in North Dakota and surrounding states. Unfortunately for many of our southern and eastern counterparts, getting adequate rain now may be too late for crops. This horse race to the finish (harvest) for many in key corn and soybean states is a dismal trifecta of heat, drought and timing. The result is setting up to be an unwelcome scenario of crop losses and high feed prices.

In fact, an informal poll on the Dairy Herd Network’s website asked readers if corn prices would exceed $8 per bushel at some point this year. Of the 79 votes, 70 percent expect the price to exceed $8.

Some experts anticipate that the 2012 Midwestern drought could have the greatest impact on American agriculture since 1988. At this writing, the 10-day forecasts show little chance of any rain falling across the Midwest.

So for now, the best recommendation is to be aware of the current crop and feed situation, be careful with your feed purchases and be vigilant for opportunities that may present themselves for only a very short time.