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Build drought resiliency for your cattle herd

USDA ARS WFP-ARS-cattle-drought.jpg
Cattle walk across a plain in Colorado.
Producers should carefully plan how to manage livestock as dry conditions persist.

Drought may constitute a single season or cover multiple years. Lower than normal precipitation and higher than normal temperatures arrive in predictable cycles and as unforeseen weather events. Either way, history shows that droughts happen frequently in the western US. A drought management plan assists farms and ranches survive and strengthen their ag business. 

It’s best to plan for drought when not currently in the heat of one. A short-term strategy, though, says Utah State University Beef Cattle Specialist Matthew Garcia is to identify pasture and hay resources to avoid de-populating your cattle herd.

“The problem now is that, in some places, producers are in the second or third year of drought,” he says. “If you have irrigated pasture, water has been turned off or decreased. Hay yields are well below average. Now, everyone wants to lease more pasture and buy more hay. Under this demand, prices rise. This increases cost of production dramatically. The guys that are doing alright implemented a drought grazing plan before the drought hit.”

Water and feed inventory

The first component of a drought plan is a water and feed inventory available on your operation. For it, ask yourself:

  • What’s the likelihood of precipitation and return of adequate feed supplies?
  • Which makes the most financial sense, lease more pasture or purchase additional feed?
  • What supplemental feeds are available, and at what cost?
  • Should I sell hay and use the money to buy grain for limit feeding?
  • Do I have the feed resources to full feed, or supplementary feeding only? What about limit feeding grain?
  • What’s my total population of cattle in relation to feed availability?

A strategy to consider for your drought plan is whether it makes financial sense to dry lot your cattle and full feed them until the drought lifts. A benefit is that the cattle maintain their needed nutrient status. It also increases the cost of production significantly. “A cow that you can maintain at home for an annual cost of $550,” Garcia says, “has the potential to triple that maintenance cost. That may be worth it, if your cattle, as your genetic base, are extremely important to you, without them you won’t have a business, and the return on investment will pay off the cost. Keep in mind, though, that a yearly production cost of almost $2,000 will require a cow to stay productive for an additional three years to cover the cost of dry lot-ing.”

Cattle will lose considerable weight without sufficient nutrients. This decreases the milk production and fertility of mother cows, which results in lightweight calves and open cows. During drought, track the body condition of your livestock.

“Body condition scoring is a measure of fatness,” Garcia explains. “It helps predict how well our nutrition or grazing program is working and the likelihood of an animal to re-breeding, raise a calf and stay in our system. If we have huge fluctuations in the body condition score, say a cow goes into calving super fat and comes out super thing, that tells us that either our nutrition program doesn’t match the needs of that cow, or that her genetic predisposition is not compatible with our nutrient resources.”

Selective reduction of your cattle herd should also be placed in your drought plan, in particular de-population of the least productive cows. Garcia cautions that the age class of livestock chosen to sell first should be carefully considered. “We tend to keep our youngest animals in a drought,” Garcia says. “Yes, they might be our best genetics. But, we’re not sure they will integrate into the system and pay the bills. Heifers typically are the first to fall out of our system, because they don’t breed at an optimal time or fail to re-breed after their first calf. Often, it’s the middle-aged cows that are most resilient. We know what nutrient resources will maintain their productivity, and they have likely seen drought before.”

Plan cattle sales

To avoid lost revenue, plan when and where you will sell cattle. Garcia says the best time, in the current drought, was to sell pairs in January 2021. Now, the market is flooded. “Pairs, bred pairs and bred cows are highly valuable,” he explains. “Now people won’t pay premium prices for them, because they don’t need them or don’t have the forage resources to maintain them. A strategy is to market cattle outside of your traditional market area. This year, that may be selling them east of the Mississippi [River].”

Another strategy to incorporate into your drought plan is the early weaning of calves to reduce the nutritional demands on cows. “As a producer, I hate it,” Garcia says. “Because, obviously, you’re selling smaller calves. But, it's a great strategy. The mother cows will have a much higher likelihood of re-breeding, because they will allocate resources to themselves rather than lactation. When you pencil out the numbers, to sell smaller calves, at a lower price, right now will save you money. It’s not only the weight of the calves. It’s also how many cows will re-breed for next year. It’s the cost of feeding lactating cows for the drought this year. Also, if you sell calves early, you may hit the market — and higher prices — before others that sell at traditional weaning times.”

During the current drought, Garcia says record keeping of your management decisions, and the impacts of them, will inform your plan for the next drought. “This includes what animals you selected to depopulate and when,” Garcia says. “Write down when and where you grazed your livestock, and the hay yields. Record which cattle maintained high body condition scores throughout the drought. More broadly, what actions were economically detrimental to your operation, as well as which were profitable.”

Drought management plans build resiliency into your operation. This makes it stronger for weather events and cattle market fluctuations. “As an industry, we tend to address the problem when we face it rather than be proactive and plan for it,” Garcia says. “This is not the first lengthy drought. By managing for risk, our operations will be more resilient and sustainable. In this drought, create, or refine, your drought plan for the next drought. We all know it will happen again. That might be next year.”

[Melissa Hemken writes from Lander, Wyo.]

TAGS: Beef Water
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