Farm Progress

10 beef cattle to-dos if drought spreads into fall

Stock Notes: Plan and prep now with these 10 pointers for more drought if a weak La Nina develops this fall.

Dave Nanda

August 10, 2016

4 Min Read

Agriculture owes its existence to a few inches of topsoil and those once-in-a-while rainfalls. Unfortunately, that “once in a while” also includes “here and there” in the Northeast this year.

Rainfall has been spotty all across the region. Here in central Pennsylvania, you can hear a lot of “music” from cows who are not happy with the pasture situation.

Continued dry weather could have a major impact on silage and grain yields. Obviously, prospects for later hay cuttings are bleak without a major change to wet weather early this fall.


Forecasters are predicting a weak La Niña to develop late this fall and into the winter. If that happens, drought is likely to return to a large portion of cow country. Beef producers should plan and prep now for that possibility. So consider these 10 drought management pointers:

1. Estimate your winter feed shortfall; cover it now. Purchase winter feedstuffs as soon as possible before prices rise as the drought worsens or winter sets in. One of the benefits of “spotty rainfall” is a neighbor a few miles away may have good yields and excess feedstuffs available. It may be possible to buy your needs right out of a nearby field — often your cheapest option. If possible, obtain a feed nutrient analysis so you know the quality before writing the check!

2. Avoid overgrazing during drought. Careful stocking in normal precipitation years leaves a forage reserve that helps maintain pasture productivity during a drought. Overgrazing during and after a drought only delays pasture recovery. In some cases, it can permanently impair land productivity.

3. Watch younger animals closely. Replacement heifers, bulls and first-calf heifers have a higher nutrient demand than mature cows. They should be grazed and fed separately and provided supplemental feed to keep them growing if needed.

4. Increase your culling pressure. If you haven’t already done so, have the herd pregnancy-checked, and then cull all open and problem cows. When feed supplies are short, it doesn’t make sense to give a problem animal “one more chance.” Try to avoid the usual cull cow marketing time. Prices usually are at seasonal lows in October and November.

5. Consider creep feeding. If grain prices are reasonable compared to forage prices, it may pay to take some pressure off the cows by creep-feeding calves.

6. Weigh early weaning. Nutritional requirements of the lactating cow are high. Removing her calf will allow her to get by on less forage. But resist the temptation to sell early-weaned calves too soon at unprofitably light weights.

7. Keep and winter-feed those calves. It sounds contradictory, but under certain circumstances it may be profitable to retain ownership and feed those calves through winter. The best course may be to not “follow the herd” and do what everybody else is doing, especially if unusually large numbers of calves to go to market in your area. Feed grain prices may be reasonable over the coming winter, especially with a large national crop. You may be able to ship in and feed corn, and then sell calves later at an increased profit.

8. Watch for alternative forage sources. Potential feed sources might include Conservation Reserve Program land released for emergency grazing or hay production. Corn that’s severely stunted and not worth the cost of harvesting might be available for grazing. Corn harvested for grain might also be available for stalk grazing. Byproduct and commodity feeds are another option in many areas.

9. Minimize feed wastes. When large hay packages are fed unprotected on the ground, losses can exceed 35% to 40%. Use a well-designed hay feeder.

10. Carefully monitor cow body condition score. You can’t afford to let cows get too thin. Poor condition may not seem to affect a dry cow much this fall, but it will cost you dearly as calving approaches with weak calves and failure to return to heat. You’ll never “starve a profit out of them.” Crop insurance is a risk management tool to help cover extra feed costs in event of drought. But if you don’t have it, it won’t be of help this time around. And you may end up paying more for extra feed than it would have cost.

How retained beef calf
ownership pencils out
When evaluating whether to retain ownership or sell weaned calves, value of that extra gain is a key factor. It’s calculated simply as the difference in final versus initial value of the animal, divided by the pounds of weight gain. Consider this example of a 650-pound steer that will be grown to reach 850 pounds by winter’s end.

• Initial value: 650-pound steer at $1.35 per pound = $877.50
• Final value: 850-pound steer at $1.20 per pound = $1,020
• Difference in value: $142.50
• Weight gain: 200 pounds
• Value of gain: $142.50 divided by 200 pounds = 71 cents a pound

So, if you can put on, say 4 pounds average daily gain for less than $2.84 a day, retained ownership could be a viable option. Remember to include all costs such as labor and housing, not just feed.

Harpster is a beef cow-calf producer and retired Penn State animal scientist.

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