Lessons from the 2006 drought

planning for drought

The bottom line in every drought is to protect the forage resource and maintain the productivity of the cowherd. We can never cheat the basics.
Many costly lessons are learned during drought. Here are a couple I see, and some general strategies to take forward as conditions get back to "normal."

Lesson 1
With no plan in place, many producers hoped for the best and waited too long to react. Procrastination led to severe damage to forage resources and more drastic culling measures were taken than maybe would have been needed had some decisions been made earlier.

The strategy I suggest is to develop a management plan for the next drought. Give serious consideration to the stocking rate to which you return when conditions improve.

Set forage thresholds at which action will be taken, then routinely measure and project availability and demand. Your plan should also include potential feeding regimes to maintain production and a flexible culling protocol. Most importantly, take a personal vow to act in a timely manner next time.

Lesson 2
Too often this year, the focus has been on figuring out how to "rough them through" rather than maintaining adequate body condition (BCS 5). As a result, many cows slipped to body condition scores of 4 or even 3. As a result conception rates are disastrous.

Only bred cows will ever have a chance to pay off their drought debt in their lifetimes. Allowing body condition to decline was a costly, shortsighted mistake and made a bad situation worse.

The strategy for the next drought is to recognize that the number one factor affecting the profitability of a cow-calf operation is reproduction. It always has been and always will be.

Reproductive efficiency is primarily a function of nutrition. In good times and bad, maintain the herd in a minimum body condition score of 5 year-round. In the future, only consider those drought management alternatives that achieve this strategy.

Lesson 3
As a final point, define a breeding/calving season that is 90 days or less in length and fits your management and forage resources. This practice will always be the most effective management tool to optimize efficient, economical production.

Emergency feeding and marketing were and continue to be nightmares in herds with year-round calving. A wide range of calf age makes early weaning and/or marketing convoluted.

When you restock, the reproductive status of all replacements should fit the early part of this defined calving season or even precede it by a month or two.

Overall, take time to think through your own experience so far this year. We each have our own lessons to learn, and we need to develop a plan so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

This article originally appeared in the September 2006 Ag News & Views newsletter produced by the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, OK.