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Weathering the drought

By Lesa Teer.

After a brutal summer, pastures in the southern and High Plains states are beginning to look a lot alike--dead, dry, dusty and burnt. Cows out to pasture are growing thin, both in numbers and nutrition, and producers are selling out at an alarming rate.

Mark Bechthold of Booker, Texas, has already sold 220 head of his cow herd. "I'll probably end up selling about 90 percent," he said. "I've got a few left that are bred but I'll probably end up selling them also."

With little relief in the way of summer rainfall, pasture conditions are declining rapidly, leaving many producers with culling or feeding as their only options. Some, like Bechthold, have Conservation Reserve Program grazing land to fall back on--but even that isn't a long-term option.

"I've relied on the CRP because my native grass never did grow any over the summer due to the drought," Bechthold said. "The CRP is coming close to being over with and I didn't want to have to feed them all winter."

If the drought continues--and many are saying that it will--producers are going to find themselves in the difficult situations of culling more with only their best cows left, preventing pastures from being overgrazed and maintaining a cow-calf herd that will continue to be profitable after and during the drought.

Culling considerations

Chances are if you're a producer, you've had to go through the culling process before for one reason or another. However, many producers have never had to cull due to the onset of a long-term drought.

Droughts as severe as this one bring forth many new and different concerns for producers. Suddenly, forage availability is depleted, feed costs are steadily climbing and the economic feasibility of maintaining an operation comes to the forefront. Jason Cleere, Ph.D, Texas AgriLife Extension associate professor and Extension beef cattle specialist, has advised many producers on how to best get through the drought.

"We want to do two things," Cleere said. "One, we want to make sure that we get this year's calf crop and income on the ground, and with that we assume the cows we've got now are bred. But, also, we want to make sure that we look at maintaining those cows in good enough condition so that they will breed back in the spring and we'll make sure we have a calf crop and a paycheck two years from now."

Cleere suggests first considering weaning and selling larger calves in the herd in order to preserve as much forage as possible.

"If you do the math, a 500-pound calf may eat seven to 10 pounds of forage per day," he said.

After palpating all cows and heifers, cull any cows that are open or are outliers in the calving season.

"Now is not the time to give them another chance," Cleere said. "It's just going to be so expensive to take them through the current situation we are in now."

Replacement heifers are the next culling candidates. While they are the future of the operation, open heifers are a higher risk for the operation, as they are the most susceptible to drought and won't provide revenue for two years.

"You may even consider culling bred heifers," Cleere said. "The toughest time to breed them back would be after they've had that first calf. They're going to be the most susceptible to the drought situation and they'll have the lowest reproduction rates and weaning weights.

"As for the cow herd, I've told ranchers to look for an excuse to get rid of them," Cleere said. Accurate record keeping plays an important role in this process by allowing producers to better examine the cow's reproductive history. An evaluation should focus on udders, age, eyes, feet, legs or anything else that may throw up a red flag that the cow may be lower producing or shorter term on the ranch, thus provide a reason for culling.

A cow's body condition score can also help determine if she should be culled. Cleere said that cows with a body condition score of a low four or a three are culling candidates, as they will have a harder time improving condition through the drought.

"Once you do all of that you're kind of down to the heart of the herd," Cleere said.

At this point, culling can be based on marginally productive cows, cows that produce lighter weaning calves or uniformity as far as phenotype or color.

Some producers, hopeful for rain and improved conditions, tend to avoid culling during a drought and try to wait it out. This often ends up stretching the cows nutritionally--resulting in thinner cows that will not bring as much money when marketed.

If a producer decides to feed any cattle through the drought, feed availability is a major concern. Feed prices have continually gone up, and with the supply of feed available to producers continuing to go down and drought conditions continue to worsen, prices will likely continue to increase. Producers should be proactive in evaluating forage and economic resources in order to make the decision to feed through the drought as early as possible.

"We're telling producers that we need to really think about the possibility of feeding from now through the middle of April," Cleere said. "I'm looking at $2 to $4 to get a cow through this--per day."

While culling due to drought conditions is a task that no producer wants to be faced with, culling provides an opportunity to improve the overall quality of the herd by ensuring that all of the cows left will generate income.

"When you come out of the drought, the goal is that if you're still going to be in business, still going to have a cow herd, you're going to be the best of the best," Cleere said.

Pasture conditions

One of the most important considerations producers need to heed to is the ongoing change in pasture conditions and stocking rates. If stocking rates are not adjusted for the drought conditions, a producer runs the risk of the herd suffering nutritionally and pastures being severely damaged.

Daren Redfearn, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University associate professor and Extension forage and pasture management specialist, said that the primary goal of grazing management during a drought should be to increase grazing efficiency.

"Once the stocking rate has been corrected for reduced forage production, some form of rotational stocking would offer the best chance to stretch limited pasture production," Redfearn said.

Redfearn said that it can be difficult to determine which grazing strategy is the best for a drought because a correct stocking rate is the most important factor.

Even though there is no definite preferred grazing strategy, Redfearn suggests a rotational stocking plan.

"It may be better to overstock and ruin certain pastures than to overstock and hurt all pastures," Redfearn said. "An additional advantage to using this strategy is that in the future, it would be certain which pastures may need better grazing management or renovation."

Redfearn said that stocking rate, which is dependent on the realistic estimate of forage production, utilization and a realistic estimate of animal size and number, should be refigured every time one input variable changes.

After stocking rate, Redfearn said that pasture health is the most important consideration. "Some perennial grasses and some reseeding annuals will not persist if overgrazed for too long," he said.

While a little bit of rain may lead to green grass and the tendency to turn cattle out to graze those pastures, drought-damaged pastures should be given more time to recover.

"Moisture alone does not cure the long-term effects on plants from drought," Redfearn said. "Even though it can be tempting to begin grazing as soon as pastures begin to grow following a drought, grazing drought-weakened pastures too soon can further weaken the plants, which may permanently damage the stand."

For producers in the southern states, conditions look rather bleak and talk of the drought lasting for a while longer offers little relief in sight. "I think we probably have lost a lot of grass, to what magnitude that's hard to tell because, really, we haven't been through this scenario," Cleere said.

When conditions do begin to improve, Cleere suggests that producers stock conservatively in order to allow pastures to adequately recover and avoid supplemental feeding.

"Supplemental feeding cost are much higher, hay cost are much higher, if we can stock more conservatively, hopefully we can reduce the amount of those that we have to feed and depend more on the cattle harvesting their own forage," Cleere said.

SIDEBAR

Rebuilding herds

When conditions improve and it is time to start rebuilding herds, there are several considerations to make in terms of what cows to rebuild with and whether it should be done through buying or breeding. Here are a few points from Cleere's "Buying vs. Raising Replacement Heifers" (http://animalscience.tamu.edu/images/pdf/beef/beef-buying-vs-raising-replacement-heifers.pdf) to help when making decisions, whether buying or raising replacement heifers.

--Before rebuilding herds, take time to evaluate the operation from a condition standpoint and determine what breed of cattle will fit the best for the environment. "We can make just about any cow work in any environment in the US but input costs will vary--cattle not suited to their environment will cost more to maintain," Cleere said.

--When considering genetic improvement within the herd, buying would be the best option if genetics need to be improved quickly. However, the difficultly of buying lies in finding the cows that you want that are within your budget.

--When breeding for replacement heifers, the breeder has complete control of the genetic selection and the ability to crossbreed for heterosis. The breeder can also purposely choose to keep the heavier and older calves, which have been shown to be the more fertile of the calf crop, for replacement heifers.

--A cow's genetics can affect the profitability of the herd for the next eight to 14 years, making reproduction an important issue in a cow/calf herd. "From an economic standpoint, the most important trait to have is not weaning weight or price per pound--it's reproductive performance," Cleere said.

--Unfortunately, there is no general rule of thumb for if buying or breeding is more economical; it varies from operation to operation. Generally, raising replacement heifers is more of an option for large producers. But, for smaller producers, buying may be the most economical option due to the costs of feed and labor. "So much of that decision for ranchers is not just an economic decision, but it's also just a practical decision--management issues, the ability to find females as good as the cows that you already have," Cleere said.

--"(Producers) need to understand that the replacement female is a long-term investment--you've got high upfront costs whether you're raising it or you're buying it," Cleere said. "So you want to make sure that you've got a female that will live in that herd, be producing in that herd and give you a paycheck every year for as long as possible."

--Buying middle-aged replacement cows may be a better choice than younger cows as they are fully mature, have calved before and can be more dependable from a reproductive standpoint.

--A producer has many options when deciding where to purchase replacement heifers and should choose one where they trust that they purchase a healthy animal that will not pose a health risk to the rest of the herd.



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