MANAGE FORAGES IN ANTICIPATION OF NEXT DROUGHT

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
PhD, PAS


A few years ago we were in the midst of one of the worst droughts in US history. It had huge implications on the beef cattle producer as well as most of production agriculture. Fortunately, these conditions passed, moisture conditions improved in most areas and we were back to “normal.” Figure 1 below, taken from http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/, this shows that as of June 27, 2017, in general, U.S. moisture conditions are pretty decent with only moderate to more severe exceptions in North Dakota, Eastern Montana and South Dakota. We do have dry conditions down into the central Plains and Oklahoma and various other regions which could progress into a more significant problem moving farther into the summer. Although not shown on this map, extensively dry conditions extend into much of the western U.S. which is evidenced by the daily reports of wildfires in these areas.

The United States and the en-tire world will always experience, at any given point in time, drought in multiple areas. In the United States, the dry conditions of the 1930's created an event known as the “dust bowl” in much of the Central U.S. It affected an estimated 50,000,000 acres of land. Later, in the late 40's and early 50's, drought plagued the Great Plains and Southwest. In Texas, rainfall decreased by 40 percent between 1949 and 1951, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). In some places, crop yields fell by 50 percent. Then from 1987 to 1989 the costliest recorded drought occurred, even though it ONLY affected 36 percent of the U.S. Costs were estimated at $39 billion, according to the NCDC. Once again, the impact was the worst in the northern Great Plains, through the West Coast and Northwest. This drought also resulted in a series of extensive forest fires. In 1988, 793,880 acres of Yellowstone National Park burned, prompting the first complete closure of the park in history.

Scientists and historians called the dry conditions of 2010-2013 in the United States the worst drought since the 1950s. By mid-2012, more than 60 percent of the continental U.S. was in drought conditions. By late June 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had declared a disaster area in more than 1,000 counties countrywide.

History tells us that drought conditions come and go. While some droughts last for quite some time, at some point the conditions change, allowing for rainfall that provides for plant growth and refilling of water stores both below and above ground. This tells cattle producers three things: 1) at some point in time they will have to deal with drought conditions, 2) they will have to recover from these dry conditions, and finally, 3) they should prepare for the next time drought occurs. Let's take a look at items two and three.

Recovering from Drought Conditions

Every cattleman is thankful when rain begins to fall after extended dry periods. This means the grass will soon begin to grow, pastures will offer grazing and the potential to harvest forages is renewed. How the recovery process occurs depends on how the ranch was managed during the drought. Most operations follow one of these general plans:

1) Cattle were kept and fed.
2) Cattle were sold with the intention of re-buying and restocking once the drought passed.
3) Cattle were shipped to another location where they were grazed.
4) Cattle were shipped to a feedyard – similar effect as No. 3.

One of the first jobs the cattleman has is to evaluate pastures and hay meadows. After a drought, the focus must be on providing adequate opportunities for pastures to reestablish. Often, plant strength and overall plant population has been reduced; in some cases dramatically. With rainfall, the existing plants will grow, but because of stress, possibly not as vigorously as during adequate moisture conditions. However, the new growth may outwardly give the appearance of substantial plant coverage in a given pasture or field.

Producers must resist the urge to assume that, with the new plant growth, things are back to normal and pastures are ready for a full stocking rate. Most cow-calf producers don't like seeing empty pastures and become eager to restock if they reduced their herd or if they have been holding cattle in restricted areas and continued to hay and feed. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Existing plants may have been weakened by the dry conditions and overgrazing and will be less tolerant of normal grazing pressures.
2) Additionally, after a period of overgrazing, weed germination and growth may be substantial, so weed management for the coming year is more important than ever.
3) With improved moisture conditions comes an opportunity to apply fertilizers that may be utilized by the plant. Test your soil and apply fertilizers per the results.
4) Graze conservatively. If you have not used rotational grazing up to this time, temporary fencing (i.e. electric fences) are very helpful to apply rotational grazing techniques.
5) Monitor pastures closely. Every opportunity for re-establishment and regrowth must be provided.
6) If existing ponds/stock tanks are still dry, consider at least some degree of clean-out and deepening so they may hold more water once they have re-filled and the next drought occurs.

For the cattle themselves, certain considerations must be made:

1) If the cattle were kept and fed, it is likely their body condition is less than optimal for rebreeding. Improving a female's body condition score (BCS) normally increases her pregnancy rate. Research has shown that a BCS 3 female will only have a 32 percent pregnancy rate compared to 68 percent for BCS 4, 88 percent for BCS 5 and 93 percent for BCS 6.
2) Cattle going through drought experience a significant degree of stress. In addition to reduced body condition, mineral stores may have also been decreased. A sound mineral program is always necessary but especially in these conditions. Use of a quality, well designed free choice mineral along with an injectable trace mineral is indicated to insure mineral stores in the tissues are adequate. Contact a qualified nutritionist to help you with development of a mineral and overall supplementation program that will address post drought stress conditions.
3) This same level of stress may also have compromised the animal's immune function. First, make sure all animals are on a proper plane of nutrition (protein, energy, minerals and vitamins). Second, make sure you have a well-designed herd health program in place, including vaccines targeted to local production conditions. Your veterinarian can assist you with development of an appropriate program.
4) Cattle that have been on drought affected (and potentially over-grazed) pastures may have a higher than normal internal parasite load. Aggressive deworming should be employed to reduce internal parasite levels. Work with your veterinarian to determine the most appropriate internal parasite reduction program.
5) External parasites should also be addressed. Flies, grubs, and lice all contribute to stress and reduced performance and need to be aggressively treated.
6) If the herd was destocked and replacement animals must be purchased, there are three things to consider before buying replacements:
    a. What is her productivity level potential? – consider breed or breed cross fertility
    b. What will it cost to keep her over her life? – larger breeds have higher maintenance energy requirements and thus are more expensive to keep.
    c. What will her calves sell for on average? – are the genetics and phenotype of calves in demand by the market?

Other thoughts: Producers should target a minimum annual average total weaning rate of 82 percent. If purchasing pairs, the first calf is already on the ground, thus the productivity rate is high. Bred pairs are even better. In some cases, producers desire to buy young females (two to three years old) for extended longevity. However, younger females have a lower probability of reproduction in the near term. A middle-aged female (four to six years of age) has a higher calving probability than either a younger female or an older female.

Preparing for the NEXT Drought

If you are in a region of the country that is not suffering from drought conditions, you are fortunate. Remember one thing: the likelihood of your being affected by some degree of drought (short or long term) is always present. Weather patterns and related computer models seem to indicate an increased probability for drought incidence over the next few years for many cattle, forage and grain producing areas. It is important to always be prepared for the next drought:

1) Take steps to maximize forage productivity and quality by improving fertility, reducing weed populations and establishing more productive AND drought tolerant plant species.
2) Increase opportunities to utilize rotational grazing. This may include the use of cross fencing, both permanent and temporary. This is a good time to develop a more intensive rotational grazing program.
3) If possible, take steps to provide a water supply to pastures that have historically only been served by conventional stock ponds which can go dry during low rainfall periods. PVC pipe is inexpensive and a lot of waterline can be laid for the same cost as hauling one load of water.
4) Maximize the production of harvested forages. If a rotational grazing program is employed, it may be possible to harvest forages from some pastures as part of the rotation process in an effort to keep plants in more vegetative and consistently growing stages.
5) Protect harvested forages adequately. If it is not possible to store hay (particularly round bales) in a barn, provide an area where bales can be stacked off soil or mud and the stack covered by a tarp. This will assist in the longer term preservation of hay quality. If using silage, use proper storage procedures including a properly-designed bunker, application of a research proven inoculant and adequate packing. Use of a preservative in hays is also a valuable practice for extending forage quality life.
6) Consider building a commodity storage facility or modifying an existing structure for replacement feeds and forages. One of the main things producers lose in a drought is adequate levels of roughage.
7) Plan for drought conditions. This means researching and identifying multiple sources for hay, roughage, feed and commodities. If any of these commodities can be sourced at a lower cost during non-drought periods and effectively stored (protecting from moisture, insects, and rodents) it may be worth the investment. Become well acquainted with alternative roughage and feed options. Dealing with drought conditions is always expensive. Evaluate what plans are most cost-effective for your particular operation. Remember that once we get into the midst of a drought you are not the only one affected. Demand for replacement forages, i.e. hay, increases rapidly along with the cost. Second, the inventory of better quality forages decreases rapidly and much of the forage traded as time progresses is very poor quality. Do not wait!
8) Develop a drought management plan with multiple contingencies. This would include keep and feed, destock/restock, move to other pasture, or move to feedlot. Each of these programs has an inherent cost. These costs should be evaluated as thoroughly as possible, and the plan should have forage production and animal components.
9) Keep animals in as nutritionally sound condition as possible. This minimizes stress and prepares them for the stress that is inherent with drought conditions. It also strengthens the immune system platform. Keep internal and external parasites abated.

Conclusion

The best way to deal with drought conditions is to have a plan in place in the event of occurrence. These periods are always challenging to deal with and are typically expensive. The stress and cost of dealing with a drought can be minimized by having a plan in place and managing for the possibility before it ever happens.







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