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When the snow flies

As summer gives way to fall, crops are harvested, calves are weaned, cows are pregnancy checked and ranchers start preparing for winter. Before the snow flies, there are several key considerations to keep in mind. On Monday, Sept. 10, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension offered advice during a seminar. One of the panelists in the seminar, Jack Davis, SDSU Extension economics field specialist, explained what producers need to do before the first blizzard hits.

“Our objective for this seminar was to provide an overview of core issues cow-calf producers face during a drought, addressing nutritional, reproductive, and economic issues,” Davis said.

According to the South Dakota Center for Farm/Ranch Management, the annual cow cost in 2011 was $604.06. The net return per cow is $88.34. The feed cost is the largest expense in the cow-calf operation, equating to 68 percent of all costs. That adds up to $408.53 feed cost per cow in 2011.

“With the drought, our feed costs are only going to raise and make things more complicated in 2012 and beyond,” he added. “70 percent of the nation’s cowherd is in a drought situation, and 35 percent of the cows are in a severe drought, so things are definitely more difficult this year for producers than in years past. We haven’t had this widespread drought for a long time.”

The first things producers need to do is evaluate their feed resources.

“Producers need to take inventory of where their grass stands, what their hay and forage resources are and ask themselves if their feed supply can support the number of head they have through the winter. If not, do they need to buy, and where is it available and what is the cost of those feed resources?” Davis asked. “Preg checking is very important, so we can cull those unproductive cows. Many ranchers may have to cull cows. If we don’t recharge with rain, it’s important to ask what can we carry into next year and what will it cost us? And, will we have enough to support those cows if the drought continues?”

Davis said, if producers cull some cows or early-wean calves and sell those feeder calves, it’s a good time to do so because the calf market has recovered from earlier this summer, and ranchers should earn a good price for their stock this fall.

“It’s really important to emphasize that ranchers shouldn’t panic,” he said. “We have been through droughts before. Take some time to do some inventory to figure out feed needs, cash flow and your balance sheet situation. Talk with your lender and keep him aware of how you’re doing. Sharpen all of your production management skills. I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a plan and knowing your costs. Producers really need to look out through this calf crop and into the next and set some checkpoints to test your plan. If we don’t recharge with moisture, what are your alternatives? If possible, make a drought plan for how you will navigate through 2013.”

One of the most common mistakes Davis sees ranchers make is overgrazing pastures and offering too much feed to cows. He stressed that it’s important not to overfeed or underfeed the cowherd.

“With the dry weather producers are facing, it’s important to maintain the appropriate body condition score (BCS) on cows, so that we are successful next year,” he said. “We need to do this in a cost-effective way. Ways to do feed cows includes adding liquid feed to CRP hay or straw or letting cows graze on corn stalks. Be sure to test nitrates in feed though; it’s a simple test that can be done to be sure the feed is safe.”

BCS before calving is more important than BCS following calving to subsequent fertility. A BCS of 5 at calving is ideal. According to SDSU Extension, failure of a cow to become pregnant cost producers $128. Evaluate the cost of gain and decide whether it would pay off to feed thin cows or simply cull them.

“For every degree below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, including wind chill, a cow’s energy requirement will increase by 1 percent,” said Davis. “If wet, energy requirement increases by 2 percent for every degree below 59 degrees Fahrenheit.”

To evaluate cost of gain for different protein options, SDSU Extension offers a calculator online and as a phone application. Check it out at http://igrow.org/livestock/beef/feedstuff-cost-comparison/