Cattle Today

Cattle Today



by: Wes Ishmael

There are no perfect answers in an extreme drought, unfortunately. There's plenty of need, though, for speed, clear-headedness and the guts to make decisions.

“The producers who survive best during drought are those who adopt sound management and financial plans and review them regularly,” says John Paterson, extension beef cattle specialist at Montana State University (MSU). “They make firm decisions, and act quickly and early. Keep alert for opportunities such as buying or leasing land instead of buying feed and replacing older animals with younger ones.”

Patterson made those comments during the summer as cow-calf producers in the West wilted beneath extreme drought. He just as well had been talking about the Southeast.

Kentucky alone is about 70,000 semi-loads of hay short of having what it needs heading into winter, according to Warren Beeler of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. He shared that perspective with participants at the Kentucky-Tennessee Cow-calf conference in Clarksville earlier this month. Every state in the region can share similar measures that are as dramatic.

Emmit Rawls, agricultural economist with the University of Tennessee (UT) echoes Patterson in an insightful paper—Drought-related Beef Cattle Management Decision—you can find at

According to Rawls, the three biggest mistakes cattle producers make during a drought are: Doing nothing, hoping it rains or that additional land can be rented or hay purchased; Weaning and marketing calves hoping that cows won't have to be liquidated; Once culling begins, saving young cows (less than four years old) instead of more productive cows that are four to seven years old. He goes on to note that refusing or delaying a decision is in fact making one.

“During drought, decisions may often be made on emotion rather than logic,” says Paterson (see Questions when facing Drought). “The main goal is to make objective decisions and get skilled help when necessary from your extension educator, beef specialist, range specialist, or agricultural consultant.”

Choosing Decisions

“The first measure would be to have all cows pregnancy-examined by a veterinarian or qualified professional. All cows that are open need to be culled. There is no need to use limited feed resources on animals that will not provide any returns,” says David Kirkpatrick, a UT professor, in a paper at the same website mentioned earlier. “At the time of the pregnancy examination, evaluate all cows for structural soundness to include udders and teeth. Cows with structural problems and bad udders or no teeth will likely not perform to their genetic potential. Also, cows with bad attitudes (temperament) should be candidates to cull. It would be best to eliminate these cows before they begin to lose too much flesh and reduce their value.” He adds that producers who have maintained records that can be utilized to evaluate performance have a leg-up in deciding who stays and who goes.

In broader terms, Jim Oltjen, extension animal systems management specialist at the University of California, Davis did an economic analysis a decade ago, evaluating the merits of culling deeper or feeding more to get through a drought; the results hold true today. In general terms Oltjen explains higher feed costs lend themselves to deeper culling, while a cattle cycle near its peak—more numbers and lower prices—favors keeping more; the optimum response usually falls in between the two.

With both of these forces at work today—historically high feed prices and calf prices near their historical peak—Oltjen believes, “Now is the time to liquidate more cows, unless you really believe these cattle prices are here for the long haul…This is not the time to figure out how to buy enough hay to get by for another year. You don't feed your way out of a drought.”

That decision has plenty to do with the primary risk factors associated with risk management during drought outlined by Patterson and some other western state beef extension specialists in guidelines — Drought Management Strategies for Beef Cattle — assembled for the Western Beef Resource Committee (

According to the specialists who authored this particular paper, primary risk factors include: the total population of cattle in relation to feed availability; how widespread the drought-area is; the time of year and the likelihood of rain and return to adequate feed supplies in your area; and evaluation of cash flow needs since borrowing your way through a drought to maintain traditional herd size may inhibit long-term profitability.

All of that comes before the more detailed pencil-thinking over such things as animal units relative to available feed, possibilities of extending available forage with supplement or limit-feeding, grouping cattle with similar nutrient requirements for more efficiency, etc.

Moreover, none of that speaks to the mental anguish that accompanies the uncertainty and tough decisions wrought by extreme drought.

In his paper, Rawls suggests:

• Accept that droughts are a part of the cattle business.

• Develop a proactive attitude about dealing with the drought. View it as a challenge, not an obstacle.

• Formulate a plan to minimize the effects of the drought.

• Remember, there is no perfect decision. You simply have to make the best decision you can today given the facts you have and some expectation about the future.

• Not to decide is to decide.

Questions when facing a Drought

• Are my animals losing weight or not performing adequately?

Fertility of cows may decline when their body condition score drops below a 4, especially at time of calving and when they go into the breeding season in poor condition. Early weaning of calves is one option that allows cows to rebuild body reserves and rebreed the next year.

• Will I have to start to provide supplements?

Producers generally have two options for meeting the nutrient requirements of cattle on drought-affected pastures and ranges: (1) provide supplemental feed to ensure the cow herd has adequate energy, protein, vitamins and minerals; (2) reduce the nutrient requirements of the cow to a point where they can be met with available forage.

• If the drought continues, should I cull non-productive animals?

Money and diminishing feed reserves are too valuable to waste on cows that are unproductive, not pregnant, or are unsound. These animals are candidates for culling at any time, especially during drought conditions.

• What feeds are available to the ranch?

Try not to buy, or harvest, weed-infested hay. The future cost of feeding weed-infested hay far out-weighs its feed value in the short-run. If weedy hay must be fed, feed in an area or holding pasture that is removed from streams, riparian areas and wooded areas. Be sure to keep cattle confined for several days after feeding the weedy hay to prevent them from spreading viable seed from their digestive tract.

• Assuming that I will have to purchase supplemental feeds, are they available and at what cost?

Available crop residues such as small grain straws, and other byproducts of crop production represent important methods of stretching tight feed supplies during drought conditions. Pastures and native range that are dormant due to drought conditions may be low in vitamin A, phosphorus, and protein. Meeting the need for these nutrients is important if cow herd productivity is to be maintained.

• Is one option to sell hay and buy back grain for limit feeding?

The use of salt to limit supplement intake may increase water intake 50-75 percent. Water must not be limited in any way, or salt toxicity may result. When using byproduct feedstuffs, make sure that the mineral program is balanced. These feeds are typically high in phosphorus and potentially high in sulfur, which may lead to some mineral imbalances. The trace mineral levels may be somewhat low as well.

• Do I have the feed resources to allow for full feeding vs. supplementary feeding only vs. limit feeding of grain?

Underfeeding nutrients lowers production. Over-feeding nutrients increases feed expense and reduces the net return over feed expense. Feed the highest quality feeds to animals that have the highest nutrient requirements (replacement heifers, growing calves and lactating cows). Feed the lowest quality feeds to cows in the middle-stage of pregnancy. Save the better quality feeds for those periods just before and after calving. Consider substituting grains for hay when these substitutions can balance the ration more adequately at a lower price.

Grain supplementation on pasture can result in a catch 22. Excess supplemental grain can reduce forage intake and digestibility, resulting in less energy available to the animal from available forage. The reduction in forage intake may not be undesirable during a drought. As a general rule, up to 0.2% of body weight of supplemental grain per head per day will not result in large decreases in forage intake and digestion. For example, a 1,200 lbs. cow could receive 2.4 lbs. of grain per day without drastically reducing forage utilization.

Source: Adapted from Drought Management Strategies for Beef Cattle (CL 1130), from the Cow-Calf Management Guide and Cattle Producer's Library, prepared by the Western Beef Resource Committee (http://


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