10 Drought Management Tips

The drought is not “new” news. Texas suffered a record-setting drought and heat wave last year that could impact livestock production for years. But what’s different about this year’s heat and drought is how far it extends across the country.

The vast majority of the U.S. is classified as either as abnormally dry, in a moderate drought, a severe drought, an extreme drought or – the highest on the drought monitor scale – an exceptional drought. This lack of rainfall, coupled with high temperatures abnormal for much of the country, is not only impacting pastures and water for livestock, but also grain production across the High Plains.

In July, the USDA scaled back their corn crop forecast by 12 percent, reducing the expected crop by almost two billion bushels. Other crops are also impacted, which will ultimately result in higher feed prices, just when ranchers need feed the most.

To help ranchers deal with the drought gripping much of the country, South Dakota State University Cooperative Extension Service, offered their Top 10 Drought Management Tips for Ranchers who are trying to deal with the lack of rain and increased cost of feed.

1. Protect your forage base. Experts suggest ranchers adjust their stocking rate to match the drought induced reduction in forage yield. Not reducing the stocking rate could result in damage to the forage, resulting in more weeds and a longer recovery for the grass.

Several options exist, including early weaning to reduce the quantity and quality of feedstuffs needed to meet cow nutritional requirements. A dry cow will not require as many nutrients, plus if you are feeding your herd, early weaning will reduce the number of “mouths to feed” by about half.

2. Look at the value in your breeding stock. If liquidating or downsizing your breeding herd is necessary, recognize that the most value in your animals is with the younger breeding stock. Those animals have a higher net present value over the long term.

Therefore, open cows and older cows should be the first to go, followed by middle aged cows. This program will retain the youngest and most fertile animals in your breeding herd.

3. Monitor water quality.Whether you are depending on well water or surface water, a drought can impact the quality of the water. Different areas of the country pose different challenges with water quality. In some areas, the sulfate levels of the water must be monitored. Water containing 3000 ppm sulfate can be fatal for cattle, and sulfate levels of 1700 ppm can reduce animal performance.

High sulfate water can cause a substantial reduction in copper and thiamin absorption, leading to polio in livestock. If your sulfate levels are high, contact experts in your area to find out the best ways to avoid a sulfate problem in your cattle. In various surface water ponds and tanks, blue-green algae is becoming more and more common,and can be toxic to humans and livestock. Also known as Cyano bacteria, blue-green algae generally grow in lakes, ponds and slow-moving streams when water is warm. Animals consuming blue-green algae can die suddenly.

4. Communicate with your lenders. Drought undoubtedly affects your financial situtation, so keep your financial institution abreast of your management decisions. Lenders may negotiate interest-only payments, restructure your current debt and change your arrangement for additional cash flow projections needed to purchase feed.

5. Look ahead for winter feed. Purchasing feed now and storing it for winter could likely save you money when feed prices spike in early fall. Consider both the cost of the feed and the cost of transportation. Just because there’s cheaper hay 500 miles away doesn’t mean that it will actually cost less to get it in your barn.

Consider storage options for early purchases, and consider how you plan to use the product. For example, co-products from ethanol production may be high in sulfur. If your water is already slightly high in sulfates from the drought, the sulfur issue will be compounded with water and feed together.

6. Think outside the box for forage. Consider all your options for forage or dry matter for your livestock. CRP land, different types of hay and silage can all be viable options. Experts suggest you check the feed quality to determine what supplements might be necessary to keep your livestock in good condition. If you are considering grazing crops for forage, be sure to check with your insurance adjuster to determine claim payout limitations before grazing.

7. Manage cows by body condition. Some cows might be able to lose condition in the winter, while others need to gain weight. Assess the cows and determine what body condition score they are currently at and need to maintain over the winter. Mature cows should be around a 5 at calving, while younger cows at a 6-6.5. For thinner cows, mid-gestation which is typically after weaning, is the most effective time to add body condition.

8. Consider the economics of creep feeding. During a drought, creep feeding calves may not be your most viable economic option. Creep feeds can be costly, and the only forage you would save is the forage consumed by the calves, Sometimes early weaning might be the better option. Determine your goals with the calf crop, and understand you may have to be flexible or change your goals, depending on the price of creep feeds.

9. Understand the economics and feasibility of keeping cows in a dry lot. It is very possible to feed beef cows in a dry lot for an extended period of time. However, there are several considerations, such as the price of the feed ingredients, low quality vs. high quality roughages, facility, equipment and available labor. Yardage charges may also need to be considered.

10. Consider using risk management strategies. Price protection strategies can assure you a margin exists when your calves are sold, as well as lock in grain prices for feed sources. Futures contracts are probably most useful for those backgrounding a calf crop. Put options will lock in a floor price, while leaving the upside open. Livestock Risk Protection insurance can also be used. However, trading in the commodities market has risk, and it is wise to consult an expert if you are unfamiliar with the practice.

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