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Drought has cattle producers considering their options

K-State beef and agronomy experts discuss drought measures for cattle herds in May webinar.

Jennifer M. Latzke

June 2, 2022

4 Min Read
Drought stricken field
NO RELIEF IN SIGHT: Kansas cattle producers, like many others in the Plains, are dealing with the effects of ongoing drought. Some are starting to consider their options for their herds and their pastures this summer and into the fall. Courtesy of K-State Research and Extension

Cattle producers in the western two-thirds of Kansas have to be flexible in the best of years. Their grazing resources are different from those in the eastern part of the state.

But a dry winter and spring with high winds and low humidity didn’t help grass coming out of dormancy this spring. And drought in the foreseeable forecast through the summer has many considering their grazing options for their herds. The K-State Research and Extension Beef Team hosted a webinar May 19 discussing what cattle producers can do to mitigate the effects of the drought on their herds and their pastures.

Sandy Johnson, a KSRE beef specialist in Colby, Kan., says some cattle producers are facing reduced feed resources and record-high prices for fee and production inputs.

U.S. drought map

“Producers are faced with challenging decisions, since harvested feed supplies are depleted or gone, and the outlook for pasture production is well below normal in much of the state. Record-high prices for many production inputs are another factor,” Johnson said. They have much to consider for both the near and the long term, she added:

  • Rain forecast. Keith Harmoney, professor of range science, says western Kansas cattle producers need to keep an eye on the rainfall they get in May and June, which is critical for forage growth. By the end of June, if they are still low on precipitation, producers need to rethink their stocking rates.

  • Supplementation. Harmoney reminds producers that if they choose to supplement forage to cattle on pasture, a mix of 70% straw or crop residues and 30% distillers grains can replace grazed forage at a 1:1 ratio. He cautions against using higher-quality supplemental forages since that higher digestibility rate will actually increase cattle grazing the pasture, thus defeating the purpose.

  • Breeding considerations. Johnson says producers need to provide cows adequate nutrition to ensure they get bred. She’s mostly concerned about younger replacement heifers with higher nutritional demands, and cows that were already thin through the winter and were going to use that spring green-up that didn’t happen to get them up to condition.

  • Cull open cows. Jaymelynn Farney, Extension specialist, nutrition, advises cattle producers with fall-calving herds to watch for higher open rates. In the eastern half of the state, she said, veterinarians are seeing much higher open rates than are typical on fall-calving herds. You can save a lot of forage by finding those open cows and culling them as soon as possible.

  • Drylot option? Justin Waggoner, Extension specialist, beef systems, says producers may be considering pulling their pairs off pasture and bringing them into drylots and feeding them there. He recommends leaving pairs out on grass as long as possible, to reduce the amount of expensive commodities you’ll need to feed. Rough calculations of a drylot ration of straw ($70 per ton), alfalfa hay ($180 per ton), and corn ($8 per bushel) comes to a ration price in excess of $200 per ton on a dry matter basis. That’s roughly $2 to $3 per head per day in feeding costs.

  • Early weaning. Many cattle producers may be considering early weaning their calf crop at 120 to 150 days of age to save grazing pasture. AJ Tarpoff, Extension specialist in beef cattle production medicine, says that can be successful if producers start an early-weaning vaccine program to decrease as much stress to those calves as possible. Also, be mindful of the facilities you have available to do that. Do you have enough bunk space? Are the water sources low enough for calves to reach? And mind that you may have higher rates of respiratory disease and pink eye from dust, and even foot rot from dry and chapped skin around hooves.

See the May 19 webinar above.

Kansas State Research and Extension contributed to this article.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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