Cattle producers try to cope with drought
By Jennifer Carrico
Drought has been a problem for many in agriculture over the past few years in the Midwest and southern states, but it has also plagued the western states for many years. The United States cowherd numbers are the lowest they have been since 1952. In order to rebuild the herd, many producers need moisture.
Cattle producers discussed their situations and need for moisture during a session of the Cattlemen's College at the 2013 Cattle Industry Convention in Tampa, Fla., recently.
O.D. Cope is a third-generation farmer in southwest Missouri where he runs a cow-calf and backgrounding operation. While fall calving fits their conditions best, they still have some spring calving cows also. Managing cattle on fescue is a challenge for his family.
"The drought began to get serious in June 2011 and we didn't have much grass the rest of that summer. We had an easy winter that year, but by June 2012, we knew we were in a lot of trouble and we needed moisture soon," he said.
Cope sold calves earlier than normal in 2012. Hay was baled and put under cover in order to protect it and make the quality last longer. For the first time ever, he cut silage to feed to his cows.
"We began feeding hay and supplements to the weaned spring calves in August," he said. "We pregnancy checked our cows and had 15 to 20 percent more open than normal, which led to culling cows with problems in order to conserve resources for the rest of the herd."
Cope also planted turnips and cereal rye, as he was desperate for forage for his cattle. He said they were fortunate to get enough moisture to make both grow and his cattle learned to eat the turnips by eating the forage above ground first, followed by pulling the root out and eating it. He said he plans to plant turnips in the future because the cost of seed is low and the cattle get a feed that is nutritious.
Nebraska cattleman John Maddux runs a large cow-calf and yearling operation in the southwest part of the state. They calve 2,500 cows in April and May and graze pastures through November, at which time they turn cows out on cornstalk rubble.
"We don't supplement our cows at all. They are grazers. This year we have had to find more acres of cornstalks to turn them out on in order to keep our numbers where we have them," he said.
Maddux said it is important to always have a plan as to managing a cowherd. "This drought has been a continuing problem happening in slow motion," he said. "We have to be proactive and stay ahead of the problem before things get bad."
They have aggressively used crop residue to keep from having to feed supplements and stored forages. They practice early weaning, which has worked well on their operation.
Calves are fenceline weaned at about 60 days of age and supplemented with better forages and feed to attain excellent conversions. He said this helps keep good calf health and allows for limit feeding of cows during weaning.
"We have to remember to protect our four most precious resources--the land, the livestock, the money and the people," concluded Maddux.
Montana cattle producer Linda Davis said the drought has been affecting them for many years as they have had six inches or less of moisture on their ranch for the past 14 years.
"We used to run 2,500 head of cows and now we are down to 400 cows on the same ranch, because we haven't received the needed amount of moisture to survive with higher numbers," she said. "It's hard to stay in business and support a family when you have to cut back so much on numbers."
Davis' ranch was started in 1873, originally running Hereford cattle. Through the years, they added Angus and Red Angus to their genetic base to make cattle that can survive on the high elevation and slim forage conditions.
"Our water table has decreased ten feet every decade. It has made for a grim situation for us," she said. "Right now our biggest problem is to keep up the morale of the workers."
She said their ranch consists of 100,000 acres and they do have water rights off of the mountains, however, there is no water to use.
"We raise our own hay and supplement our cows with cottonseed cake. We haul water to parts of the ranch that there is no water, just so we can utilize what grass is there," she said.
The Montana wildlife also cause a problem for cattle ranchers as the elk are a direct competitor to the cows and cause problems with eating grass and drinking water as well as destroying fences.
"I have been to every National Cattlemen's convention since 1937, I can tell you that 2012 is the worst drought year we've seen since 1934. We hope for rain, but we will still be here even if we don't get it," Davis concluded.
Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at email@example.com.