When prayers aren’t enough

By: Terri Queck Matzie

The USDA Drought Monitor forecasts continuing drought conditions for much of the Southern and Southwestern United States. That’s bad news for those in the stocker cattle business who rely on forage as a food source.

There isn’t much they can do to bring on the rains and green up pastures. But there are steps they can take to minimize the economic damage.

“Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” says Lyle Lomas, Professor and Head of Beef Cattle Research at Kansas State University’s Southeast Agricultural Research Center. “Think ahead, have a plan in place, and be ready to execute it when the time comes.” Lomas says that plan could mean thinning stock numbers, or exploring supplementary feed sources, or ”reducing both stocking rates and the length of the grazing season.”

Dr. Ted McCollum, Professor and Extension Beef Cattle Specialist with the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Amarillo, Texas, explores those options in more detail.

“Option Number One is the one nobody likes,” says McCollum, “and that’s to just bail out: load up and sell.”

 Of course, that’s not as simple as it sounds. “As the drought outlook intensifies, there will be more and more cattle entering the market,” says McCollum. “Even without the drought, feeder cattle see their lowest prices in June, July and August, so the earlier you pull the trigger, the better off you’ll be on price.”

However, he adds, if the market cooperates, those calves that are preconditioned could still see a bit of a premium over fresh calves.

Lomas underlines the need for timeliness. “There may be a reluctance to implement a plan with hope that rains may come and pasture conditions may improve,” he says. “However if pasture conditions do not improve and producers do not implement their drought management plan in a timely manner, the problem is further compounded.”

Option Two is to sell some and keep some, bringing the stocking rate in line with forage supplies. “You need to evaluate current forage and figure out how many you can carry today, how many you can support if there is no rain for three months, how many if it doesn’t rain for five or six months,” says McCollum. Then sell the rest or retain ownership and ship them to a backgrounding or feedyard.

Lomas proposes a similar strategy. The producer may simply plan to graze for a shorter period, then send calves on. Or he may sort by size, keeping lighter calves and sending the heavier ones to market or a feedlot.

Either way, Lomas and McCollum say feedyards and backgrounding facilities appear to have the room to handle the influx. “There is excess capacity available,” says Lomas. McCollum adds they are “ready and willing.”

Option Three is to keep all of the cattle at home and supplement the forage supply with other feedstuffs.

“For those with access to silage, hay or byproducts like distiller’s grains, that may be a viable choice,” says Lomas.

But McCollum emphasizes that is a complex option. “The producer will need to consult a nutritionist or extension expert as to how much to feed per day and expected weight gain response,” he says, “and calculate the marginal cost of gain.”

“Use of supplements will likely increase cost of gain,” adds Lomas. “Availability and cost of other feeds will be the determining factors, and in areas where there has been an extended period of drought, availability of other feedstuffs may be limited and cost prohibitive.”

“That’s why it’s important to make the calls and collect the information to make informed decisions,” says McCollum.

There are other issues that enter the picture as well. One is water availability. “When the pastures dry up, so does the water,” says Lomas. He recommends utilizing pastures with low water supply first.

Herd health is another consideration. “When grass dries up, cattle eat plants they otherwise wouldn’t,” says Lomas, “and that can lead to nitrate poisoning, or consumption of poisonous plants. Cattle are also more susceptible to internal parasites in drought conditions.

And pasture management is an ongoing issue. “Excessive grazing under drought conditions can have a negative impact on rangeland and pastures,” says McCollum. “Unless moisture is completely absent, the pasture will continue to try to grow, and the cattle can overgraze the regrowth.”

“It’s not just about this year,” adds Lomas. “It’s about productivity in years to come.” He says those in areas where it has been dry but some rain is expected may consider planting annual grasses like sudangrass to provide some temporary relief.

Both McCollum and Lomas agree there are varying degrees of drought that will affect producers’ decisions. Each situation, and area of the country, is unique.

“Just have your plan in place,” says Lomas, “and pray for rain.”

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