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Take tip from Old West in rebuilding herd after drought

Business Basics: Put away the round balers and adjust the cow stocking rate to withstand the weather.

March 27, 2023

4 Min Read
little boy dressed as cowboy laying on carpet in front of black and white TV
NOD TO THE PAST: In the old movies, cattle ranchers struggled with drought and forage production as well. While farmers are savvy on forage production, perhaps pushing cow numbers is not sustainable. RichLegg/Getty Images

by Wesley Tucker

I love Western movies, particularly the older ones. There’s just something nostalgic about cowboys and cowgirls battling it out with desperados or with Mother Nature.

But while searching for grass to feed the herd, most ranchers adhered to the philosophy of only stocking the range with what it could sustain in a drought year. That’s because if they ran out of grass, there weren’t many options.

They could try moving the herd to another part of the country, but there weren’t hay barns full of neatly stacked bales to feed. Being a rancher meant working with Mother Nature and adjusting your stocking rate accordingly.

Fast forward 150 years and ask, do we, as cattle producers, approach grazing management differently? Do we work with Mother Nature, adjusting the stocking rate up and down based upon what she provides each year? Or do we set a goal of our preferred cow number we wish to own and attempt to change our environment to make it happen?

Match cows to farming conditions

2022 was a year many cattle producers would prefer to forget. Limited forage supply made for a long, hard winter. Difficult decisions forced many to sell off chunks of their herd just to make it through. Ultimately, we began 2023 with the lowest beef cow inventory since 1962.

But now many parts of the country have received much-needed moisture, and forecasters say we may even be transitioning from a La Nina to a more favorable La Nino weather pattern. It brings with it the hopes of a wealth of new grass.

This leaves many producers who had to downsize questioning how to rebuild their herd. Should they attempt to buy replacements now before prices go higher? Should they retain more heifers to grow from within? The fundamental question each of us must ask ourselves is, how many cows should I really have?

Manage cows for forage

Make no mistake, the weather is unpredictable and constantly changing. We can easily go from flooding to drought in the blink of an eye. Every three to four years, we seem to cycle between abundance and lack thereof.

But equipment, such as the round baler, changed our cattle industry more than any other innovation. The ability to harvest and store large quantities of forage for later use flipped our ranching mindset.

Still, I’ve come to realize the key to profitability may be hidden in those old Western movies.

How would I manage my cattle operation differently today if the round baler didn’t exist? What would I do if it were not possible to either buy or bale my own hay?

Well, I would be forced to adjust my stocking rate each year to what Mother Nature provided. However, the reality is our most profitable level may not be going back to the maximum number of cows I used to run.

Today, a cattle producer’s input costs have risen dramatically. The price of feed, fuel, fertilizer, machinery, labor, everything is more expensive. Even with higher calf prices, if you’re not careful, you may find you’re just trading dollars back and forth. But what if you could reduce dependence on these inputs by simply working with the environment?

Change your management plan

If baling a lot of hay in the summer and feeding it in the winter allows you to maximize cow numbers, what if you only ran two-thirds of that number and background calves when the weather gives you a little extra forage?

If it turns dry, put wheels under those calves. I believe every operation should have a certain number of disposable animals that create flexibility in our grazing system. They’re our built-in drought management plan.

As you contemplate how to rebuild your herd, think about how to build flexibility into your system and work with Mother Nature. After all, with high feed prices, the value of gain for growing calves bigger on grass will be more rewarding than ever. If that system keeps me from being forced to buy $100 hay bales the next time it turns dry, it truly is a win-win.

So, before considering adding back a bunch more cows, take some time to relax and watch a Western movie, and think about how you would have managed your operation before the round baler was created.

Tucker is a University of Missouri Extension ag business specialist and succession planner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 417-326-4916.

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