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Drought pressures producers to sell yearlings sooner than normal

By Jennifer Carrico

DROUGHT—The 2012 drought has forced producers across the Midwest and High Plains to make drastic management decisions on their ranches. Shovel Dot Ranch owners Homer and Chad Buell, Bassett, Neb., are selling yearlings sooner than normal, as well as weaning early and sending cows to cornstalks several counties away due to the lack of grass on the home ranch. (Journal photo by Jennifer Carrico.)

Sending yearlings to the feedlot sooner than normal is what many stocker cattle producers are doing this year because of drought conditions.

Bassett, Neb., cattleman Homer Buell said raising cattle in the Sandhills of Nebraska always means dry weather, but this year is way more extreme than normal.

Homer and his son, Chad, run 750 commercial cow-calf pairs along with about 1,000 stocker cattle on their Shovel Dot Ranch in north central Nebraska. The drought of 2012 has pushed them to make decisions before they would like.

"We will be weaning everything in early September, which is about a month earlier than normal," he said. "We plan to keep all the calves and background them here and we may purchase some more to run as well. It all depends on the grass situation."

The decision to wean early is one that Buell hopes will benefit both the cows and calves since they are short on grass and hay. As for the yearlings, he's selling them a bit early this year too.

This year the yearlings were fed a wet distillers cake at a low level to help keep gains at a more normal amount since they were short on grass.

"Normally our calves will come off grass weighing about 930 pounds, but this year the group averaged only 890 pounds," said Buell. "We sold the heavy steers a few weeks earlier and they only weighed 925 pounds."

These lighter weights also mean the Shovel Dot yearlings brought less money at the sale. "We will get about $200 less for these calves than what we expected," he said. "It really puts pressure on the bottom line."

Besides running their own calves on their pastures, they also purchase a group of 500-weight calves, generally in late October. These calves are backgrounded in the winter at the ranch then go to run on pastures at the Lynch, Neb., ranch in late April. When it is time to sell these calves, they are sold on a Western Video auction.

Selling via video has been successful for them. They only sell the purchased cattle this way and the others are sold at that Bassett Livestock Auction.

He said they have had repeat buyers nearly every year, which he accredits partially to keeping his calves healthy so they go on to feed easily.

Buell said they haven't had any disease problems, which he said is partly because they have a good vaccination program to follow.

Both home-raised and purchased calves are on a similar vaccine regimen, which also includes insecticidal pour on and implanting.

Another important management tool the Buells have used on their ranch since the 1990s is a computer program called Grazing Manager. Buell said it allows them to input information about the pastures, as well as rainfall, in order to know how to make management changes, especially in years with drought conditions.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension range and forage specialist Jerry Volesky said cool-season forage grasses were only 30 to 50 percent productive in the western portion of Nebraska where Buell lives and many of these forages are finished producing at this point.

"I think we will end up 2012 well below average in productivity. Even with late July and early August rains, we are too far into the growing season to really see any benefit for the forages," said Volesky.

He said warm-season grasses are under significant pressure because of the drought and won't be producing much more forage either. Excessive grazing of pastures in August will lead to some stress on into next year according to Volesky, even if there is closer to normal rainfall.

Volesky said it is important to be cautious of the stocking rate and amount of time cattle are on pastures in order to reduce the stress to the forages for the future.

Buell is going to give his pastures some rest by sending cows to cornstalks since he knows there won't be enough hay to last all winter.

"In a normal year we could graze a pasture as many as three different times throughout the year. This year our grazing time will only be one to two times per pasture," he said.

To stretch pastures longer this year, they will feed their calves a product called synergy, which is a combination of modified distillers an steep--a product with 53 percent dry matter.

Since a large group of their cows will be on cornstalk fields, he hopes that will reduce the need for hay. On normal years cows graze pastures throughout the winter and are fed higher quality hay and alfalfa in April during calving season. They may add additional supplement this year depending on what the cows need.

"We are concerned about the availability of distillers grains and all feedstuffs for the entire beef industry," he said. "This drought won't help rebuild the U.S. cowherd."

Buell said that this is one of the worst years he's experienced at Shovel Dot Ranch. He hopes in the future it will be a year that can be remembered and not compared to.

Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at jcarrico@hpj.com.

Date: 9/3/2012

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