Ken Olsen: Do we need to be concerned about drought? |

Ken Olsen: Do we need to be concerned about drought?

We have all enjoyed the mild winter and it would be great to have this nice weather last through calving season. However, we need it to eventually start raining. This week’s drought monitor map ( shows that most of the Dakotas are “abnormally dry”, with the east edge being in moderate drought.

This condition has gradually expanded through the winter, and threatens to spread through more of the Tri-State Livestock News readership area.

The good news is that the winter months are the driest season in the Northern Great Plains and spring is the wettest. If the weather pattern changes, we could quickly climb out of the moisture deficit. However, because we can’t count on that, it’s important to consider appropriate steps if we continue to slip into drought conditions. Remember, cyclic variation from wet to dry conditions and back is normal and we have had several years of above-average precipitation. I don’t want to be all doomsday, but the best management for drought is to be prepared before-hand rather than be dealing with an emergency in the heart of the drought.

Range scientists regularly talk about being prepared with a drought management plan. Range research and rancher experience both strongly indicate that early response can prevent rangeland damage and reduce forced liquidation of most or all of a cow herd. Another important result of past grazing research during droughts is that it shows that the best economic alternative is to reduce stocking so the remaining cows can consume enough forage to maintain performance.

Of course, we all know the problem because it’s pretty simple. Reduced precipitation means less forage so stocking rates need to be adjusted downward to match livestock numbers with forage supply. There is not much we can do about the weather and the resulting amount of forage that will be produced. We can manage when and how we use the forage to get the maximum value from it. Here are a few examples:

If you have a cow-calf plus yearling operation, be prepared to sell the yearlings early. The cattle markets suggest that this will be a great year to put as many pounds as possible on yearlings, so selling them early will be a hard decision to make. Start preparing for it now if that is a better alternative for you than having to sell cows later.

Consider weaning calves early if it stays dry. Research conducted a few years ago by the range scientists at the South Dakota State University (SDSU) West River Ag Center indicated that weaning calves 60 days early (mid-August) reduced forage utilization during that 60-day window by 36 percent compared to cows with calves still at their side until mid-October.

Be prepared to sell some cows. If you have individual cow performance records, rank your cows from the best to the worst. This prepares you to quickly identify the cows to send to market if drought worsens. If a slight drought continues that indicates a 10 percent herd reduction, then the bottom 10 percent of the cows can quickly be sorted to sell. If it becomes more severe, the percentage can be adjusted as appropriate and you have a sorted list to know which cows are the next to go.

What performance measures should you use to rank the cows from best to worst? That depends on your goals and what is important to you. You could use historical weaning weights, calving dates (eliminate late calvers), which cows have produced daughters that made good replacement heifers, etc. Another option would be to calculate weaning weight as a percentage of cow body weight. This would allow you to cull large cows that wean small calves. These cows have probably always been unprofitable because they are likely to be inefficient converters of feed to marketable product (i.e. she eats more and weans fewer pounds of calf to sell). An added benefit will be that eliminating the biggest cows will enhance the forage savings gained by herd reduction.

I realize that many (maybe most) producers don’t have a scale and haven’t recorded individual cow weights and maybe not individual weaning weights. I suggest that the cost of a scale could be a wise investment in improved cattle management.

A second approach to determining which cows to sell would be to shorten the breeding season, pregnancy check early using ultrasound, and sell open cows. This will tighten up the calving season, which means that all calves will be born earlier next year, creating a more uniform, older and therefore larger calf crop. This option depends upon being able to put off the culling decision until late summer. Even a very short breeding season of 21 days (1 estrus cycle) to allow every cow one chance to ovulate and get pregnant has to be followed by about 40 days to detect pregnancy by ultrasound. For example, for calving to start on April 1, 2013, breeding would start on about June 20. Adding 60 days to that means pregnancy would not be known until August 20. If drought becomes extreme, that may be too late for a timely decision.

I would like to wrap this up with a comment about the importance of making a timely decision. A small early reduction in cattle numbers can prevent the need for deep cuts under emergency conditions. Besides the forage savings, there is also a marketing consideration. If large-scale drought in the region leads to movement of lots of cows to the sale barn, local cow prices will probably be depressed. Even though the cull cow market is forecast to remain strong, it still could be altered on a local basis. Moving a few cows early could improve their value and help to avoid moving many cows later in a falling market.

I hope this entire discussion is pointless because the weather doesn’t progress into a drought. On the other hand, preparedness can play a huge role in weathering the storm (pun intended) with the least damage.

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