Beef producers might start considering culling options in case drought conditions continue to decrease forage and hay availability. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Adam Russell)
Beef producers might start considering culling options in case drought conditions continue to decrease forage and hay availability.

Continued drought could lead to culling herds

Managing dwindling forage resources is also key to surviving drought.

Beef producers should be making plans regarding their herds in case drought conditions continue, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist Dr. Jason Banta said.

Banta said shortages of forage and hay could mean that producers will be forced to reduce herd numbers. Having a plan to cull herds can save producers money in the short and long term, he said.

Banta said there was very little hay carryover from last year due to the extended winter. Cooler-than-normal temperatures into spring also meant the first hay cutting, which is typically one of the best, was subpar.

The second cutting was below normal in quantity and quality due to drought, he said. Drought conditions are also affecting hay availability in other nearby states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas.

“That means hay supplies will be tight,” he said. “A lot of producers are getting worried, and their concerns are justified.”

Indeed, John Jennings, extension forage specialist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said even with recent scattered showers, “pasture recovery will require more than a few rain showers due to the dry soil profile and continued high temperatures.”

Ranchers will need to make management decisions quickly during drought to maintain enough forage to feed the herd, he added.

“Culling poor performing animals is one choice to reduce the amount of forage needed, but improving pasture management can also be effective,” Jennings said. “Producers who plan ahead get themselves into a position to take advantage of better growing conditions when those conditions eventually arrive.”

Where pastures still have forage, Jennings recommended “protecting any remaining standing forage by shutting pasture gates or by using temporary electric fencing. Manage it like standing hay, and feed it a few acres at a time to make it last as long as possible.”

Herd sizes have also increased over the past several years, Banta said. “That complicates things more,” he said. “It means they will need to look at stocking rates and begin thinking about reducing their herd numbers to save some forage supplies and reduce the need for hay in the winter.”

Producers should adjust stocking rates to avoid overgrazing pastures, Banta said. If moisture is received, overgrazing makes it more difficult for grasses to recover.

To capitalize on rain, producers should consider keeping a nitrogen fertilizer source with low volatility on better-producing pastures, Banta said. Ammonium nitrate can sit on fields for several weeks with very little or no volatilization concerns.

“There should be nitrogen on pastures in the event that an unexpected rain comes,” he said. “It’s important, because you never know when we might get moisture. It takes less rain to produce one ton of forage when there is good nitrogen available. So, it’s best to capitalize on any moisture we get.”

Banta said producers should also be mindful to maintain cows' body condition, as keeping weight on cows is much easier than recovering lost pounds.

Producers may want to wean calves one to two months earlier than usual to help keep cows in better shape going into winter, he said.

“Letting a cow get below a body condition score of four will increase the cost to get them back to where they need to be,” he said. “A bred cow will do what she has to do to bring her calf to term, but getting her bred the next time is what we’re trying to preserve.”

Banta said the U.S. cattle herd is the biggest it has been since 2009, so producers need to maximize the value of culls amid lower prices. Poor body conditions can mean even lower prices and lower weights. Taking culls to market in good condition can help maximize dollars per head.

If conditions continue to decline, Banta said producers should be prepared to cull their herds. “There is no perfect strategy, but there are different options when it comes to culling,” he said.

Cows with problems such as bad udders, bad feet, a bad eye or temperament should always be the first to go.

If additional herd reduction is needed, Banta suggested that one strategy would be to cull in the following order: virgin replacement heifers, late calvers, two-year-old cows (which have the lowest reproductive rates), three-year-old cows and mature cows (least affected by difficult conditions).

“Virgin replacement heifers are at the top of the list to sell first because those heifers generally have good value as feeder heifers or for breeding in other parts of the country,” he said. “There are pros and cons to every strategy; the pros of this approach are lower feed costs and more calf income in the short run. However, it will mean higher replacement rates over a short period of time in the future.”

Another strategy is to sell the traditional culls, followed by the late-calvers and any cows age 11 or older. After that, a percentage from each remaining group, including virgin heifers, young cows and mature cows, would be sold, Banta said. This approach keeps the herd age structure intact but results in higher feed costs and fewer calves to sell in the short term.

“Cattle prices are lower than in previous droughts, so producers can’t spend as much on feed and expect a return when they go to sale,” he said. “We’re not at the point to cull that deep, but it is time to plan and possibly initiate the first parts of the plan. The key is to be ahead of things rather than having to react to a bad situation.”

On the forage management side, Jennings suggested these other practices for managing during drought:

* Rotational grazing is a good drought management tool because it helps maintain forage growth longer into a drought period than continuous grazing. Overgrazing weakens plants and leads to shortened root systems, causing them to respond more slowly to rain and fertilizer than healthier plants do. Rotating pastures during drought conditions can help protect the pastures that will be needed for summer production.

* Although all forages produce less yield during drought, some species, including bermudagrass and KY-31 tall fescue, can tolerate heavy grazing and still survive. Manage grazing pressure carefully during prolonged dry weather to prevent the loss of high-quality forage species such as novel endophyte fescue, clover and orchardgrass.

* Feeding hay and limiting grazing during dry weather can stretch available forage on drought-stressed pastures. If all pastures are already grazed short and no regrowth is being produced, then cattle can be shut in a single pasture and fed hay until better growing conditions arrive. This practice may be detrimental to that pasture, but it helps protect forage in other pastures that will be needed for later grazing.

Where pastures are grazed down to the soil and ranchers are feeding hay, “management strategies must focus on drought recovery,” he said.

Don Hubbell, head of the Livestock & Forestry Station in Batesville, Ark., said now “is also a good time for producers to be thinking about stockpiling fescue and bermudagrass for winter feeding. I know they are thinking about today, but we need to also be looking ahead to set up our fall pasture plans. Rotational grazing will help set up the stockpiling scenario. If the dry weather ends, rotational grazing will promote more forage growth, distribute manure and urine more evenly and possibly reduce fertilizer cost.”

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