Livestock numbers and drought dictate cattle and forage managment

CANADIAN, TX - JULY 28:  Cattle use a tree for...
Cattle use a tree for shade near Canadian, Texas. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Drought will not release its grasp of the Southern and Western regions, Spring stockpiles of forage are impacted, and cattle numbers have yet to recover from last year’s devastating drought. These ingredients spell out the need for well thought out management of forage supplies and cattle herds across the country.

Last week I shared a news story from Arkansas where my father discussed the impact of early dry conditions in the state. News reports are already covering the dry weather, its threat to crops like cotton, and resulting brush fires. Bear through the bad times and good times are sure to follow, but how do we make it there?

U.S. Drought Monitor helps visualize extent of drought

The latest update (May 31) from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows 64% of the country experiencing abnormally dry conditions, 40% already in a Moderate Drought. In many states like Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and South Carolina, 100% of land area is covered by dry and drought conditions. In Georgia, 58% of the state is experiencing long-term extreme and exceptional drought conditions. We’re moving into summer, seasonally dry for many regions, so cattle and forage producers need to do what they can to manage for long-term forecasts.

What do cattle markets dictate in this situation?

Oklahoma State Livestock Marketing expert, Darrell Peel, explained in a recent edition of SunupTV that feedlot placements and inventories are down as we have been expecting for some time. We have been drawing from cattle farm and pasture supplies for some time, and now these short supplies are showing up in the feedlot inventories. Peel suggests that these short numbers can be expected to hit beef harvest by August.

We already know that beef cow inventories are at levels not seen since the 1950s, and our global beef markets continue to grow. This is the time to cull for productivity. Take a look at those older cows. Are they earning their keep? If not, it is time to replace them with younger, more efficient cattle.

This is also great opportunity to stock a few extra young, replacement quality females. If forage and feedstuff supplies allow, retain a few more heifers as the market will provide plenty of demand for herd cows when forage supplies return. Dr Rick Funston from the University of Nebraska recently explained the importance of proper heifer development.

How can farmers plan ahead for forage supplies?

Rotational grazing pays off in any size cattle operation

As we experienced last summer and fall, when drought conditions encroach, demand for forage supplies across the country can rise quickly. Producers need to start planning now, if they haven’t already, to stretch supplies and prepare to market harvested forages where available.

University of Arkansas Extension Forage Specialist, John Jennings recently discussed how cattle producers can manage their forage supplies and hopefully stretch until better weather.

  • Protect any remaining standing forage by shutting pasture gates or by using temporary electric fencing. Manage it like standing hay and feed it a few acres at a time to make it last as long as possible. A solar fence energizer and single strand of temporary electric wire can be installed in a matter of minutes to subdivide pastures as needed.
  • Rotational grazing is a good drought management tool. Rotational grazing helps maintain forage growth longer into a drought period than continuous grazing. Overgrazing weakens plants and leads to shortened root systems causing them to respond more slowly to rain and fertilizer than do healthier plants. Rotating pastures during drought conditions can help protect the pastures that will be needed for summer production.
  • Although all forages produce lower yield when drought occurs, some species including bermudagrass and KY-31 tall fescue can tolerate heavy grazing pressure and still persist while others are eliminated from the stand. Manage grazing pressure carefully during prolonged dry weather to prevent loss of high quality forage species such as novel endophyte fescue, clover, and orchardgrass.
  • Feeding hay and limit grazing during dry weather can stretch available forage on drought-stressed pastures. If all pastures are already grazed short and no regrowth is being produced then cattle can be shut in a single pasture and fed hay until better growing conditions arrive. This practice may be detrimental to that pasture, but it helps protect forage in other pastures that will needed for later grazing.

Last year, many producers in Texas and Oklahoma faced price inflation when forage supplies tightened. We don’t need anyone to be taken advantage of by greedy brokers. Plan ahead now and bear through to better times.

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