Cow-calf producer options to a loss of forage from drought or fire
Producers who have suffered and who are suffering a major reduction in available pasture and range forage due to on-going droughts – or in some cases fires – may want to consider early weaning of calves as well as selling cows to be culled earlier than normal.
Both of these actions will reduce fall range and pasture needs and may also help reduce cow nutritional needs this winter. Research has consistently shown that early weaning of calves lowers the nutrient requirements of the cow. In years like this, when range conditions have deteriorated, cows with a nursing calf will likely lose weight and body condition between now and when the calf is traditionally weaned. That weight and condition will have to be replaced sometime before calving if acceptable reproductive performance is to occur.
Let’s consider the cow culling and marketing decision first and then consider what to do with early weaned calves. If you have lost range resources and those will remain absent for two to three years, I would suggest a fairly aggressive culling of your cows. The first cows to be culled should be those that are open. You may also want to consider culling older and less productive cows.
A cow weighing 1,100 pounds that is in reasonably good condition – body condition score 5-6 – is currently selling for around $.50 per pound or $550 per head. If that same cow loses 50 pounds, and drops a body condition score by November, the seasonal decline in cull cow prices and the price for lower body condition will likely yield a price of about $.40 per pound, or only $440 per head.
If this occurs, the decline of $110 per head results in a clear advantage to selling any cull cows now versus delaying sales until November. If the cows are already in poor condition, it may be profitable to feed them for 30 days to add weight and condition before selling them. However, the typical cull cow seasonal price pattern is for prices to decline from September to October, so feeding beyond mid-September probably would not yield as positive of a return. If some older cows are pregnant, they can currently be sold for about $900 or more depending upon age and quality to buyers that have ample feed (e.g. Texas and Oklahoma).
Removing the calf from the cow and putting it in a drylot reduces the pasture requirement for the calf and reduces the nutrient requirement for the cow allowing the cow to be maintained on less supplemental feed. This can provide a real economic advantage in the future by not overgrazing ranges and by maintaining the cows in better condition, which should result in more productive rangeland and more productive cows.
If you traditionally wean a 550 pound steer calf around November 1, that calf will probably weigh about 425 pounds in the latter part of August. A 425 pound steer is currently selling for around $1.35 per pound, or $574 per head. A 550 pound steer in November will likely sell for about $1.25 per pound, or $688 per head. If calves are sold early (August) a loss of $114 per head for each of the calves sold now as compared to selling them in November would occur.
However, early weaned calves do not have to be sold early. It is generally less expensive to feed a calf in a drylot than it is to feed a cow additional forage and maintain the calf on the cow when forage sources are limited. A ration of 13 pounds of alfalfa and three pounds of corn grain per day, should have this calf gaining 1.75 pounds per day and result in the same 550 pound steer in November as keeping the calf on the cow.
If alfalfa can be purchased for $120 per ton and corn for $3.75/bushel ($6.70/cwt), feed cost would be about $70 to get the calf to November. If I can spend $70 on feed and sell a calf for $114 more, then it would seem that feeding the calf should return me an additional $44 per calf.
As you consider the early weaning alternative, remember not all of that $70 feed cost is really added cost. In a normal year, that calf would still be grazing and consuming forage while it was nursing. The cow would also be consuming additional nutrient to meet the lactation requirement. These resources do cost you.
Droughts and fires are costly to cattle ranchers. Early weaning and selling cull cows early will likely not result in the same net return as you typically receive. However, these practices may help to minimize how costly the drought or fire is to your operation.