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Animal Health Notebook

In drought, the early bird gets the worm

Here's how planned grazing lets you plan your way through drought in the most profitable manner.

At our locations in middle Tennessee, 2016 was another interesting weather year.

In April, May, and most of June we received around 20% of average moisture and cattle gains were much better than normal. Forage growth was good. July was normal in rain, as was early August. Then the switch flipped and in two weeks we were dry. A quality 1.5-inch rain event 84 hours before our September ranch school helped but we were getting 90-degree-plus temperatures almost every day. The cool-season fall growth was substantial in our better riparian areas and near nonexistent everywhere else.

A bunch of folks got caught with their pants down and started destocking. The market reacted and cattle cheapened by another 20-50%.

With planned, high-density grazing of completely recovered pastures, marketing decisions can most often be made months before actually pulling the trigger. Strategic marketing is not strategic when there is no grass in front of the cattle.

Late-spring calving allows for selling calves in December through early June or yearlings in July-August. We need to see at least 120 days of grass in front of the cattle. There is no law saying we have to keep culls until frost before selling them.

Remember that we are in the land management business or should be. I spent a lot of years as a cattle farmer always trying to make the environment fit my ideas. Now we use the cattle as the dual tool for land management and income.

Learning to see forage months in front of the cattle will give any rancher an unfair advantage. This will be true until more than half of producers have completely adapted natural model planning. Presently I do not see it happening.

Our business requires that we learn our land resource. Maps and moisture records are a real aid. Soil tests are helpful, but I have picked up more info by being on the ground as much as possible. Feeling with our feet as we walk tells us that soil is growing if we can feel a sponge affect underfoot. Grass that lures you to pulling off your boots has soil under it that contains both air and water in the inter-colloidal spaces. Both are necessities. High organic matter and limestone (calcium) are very good additions. Know the wet places, dry places, poor sites and good sites.

Successful land management comes from learning, thinking, planning, closely observing, and making a long series of good decisions. The early bird sees and feels what is going on out on the pasture weeks before most of his neighbors. Response to changes is immediate and hardly noticeable to a casual observer.

When the moisture slows down we do several things early on including:

  • Monitor grass growth behind the cattle.
  • Reduce the area the cattle are grazing on a daily basis. We do not allow the cattle to go back.
  • Estimate the cow days of forage in front of the cattle on a weekly basis.
  • Make quick response to our forage supply.
  • Increase supplement or start buying days with unrolling hay every three days.

The early bird sees the drought several weeks early. He realizes that it will rain and rain will grow grass that is in front of the cattle and grass that is several days and weeks behind the cattle.

Hay makes it possible to buy days. We can often buy or save two or three days per week. In eight weeks we have bought almost a month without damaging a thing. Hopefully we started early and are still getting some growth out in front of the herd. Feeding while grass is still growing has a double-whammy affect.

The early bird sees the dry early and can make marketing decisions before the market makes drought response. When that happens, most of us have cattle that need to leave and hopefully we already have them identified. If we sell 10,000 pounds out of a 100,000 -pound-herd it nets us three more days of grazing per month.

The take home message is for us to learn and practice and respond. We don’t need to be caught on our heels.

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