Dry weather and short pastures have reduced forage supplies, prompting livestock producers to ponder "could have, would have, should have" scenarios, says University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Eric Meusch.
Producers should try to match their herd needs to anticipated forage supplies, Meusch says. This requires planning before a drought. Many factors will be out of your control if you wait until drought actually hits.
During drought, producers have control over some factors but not others. It is important to manage controllable areas to meet animal needs and be profitable. Good grazing systems give producers flexibility to decide when and where livestock grazes, he says.
Fencing and proximity of available water are important factors. Properly managed systems let producers, rather than the cows, control grazing heights of pastures, rest periods and rationing of grasses.
The most critical factor in pasture management during a drought is understanding and estimating proper stocking rates, he says. Stocking rate is a measure of forage demand. Carrying capacity is a measure of forage supply. Weather and past management determine carrying capacity.
How do you know when your herd is overstocked? Stocking for a year with "average" rainfall basically means you will be overstocked half of the time, Meusch says. By stocking for 90% of average, you risk being overstocked one out of four years. Stocking at 80% of average reduces the risk of being overstocked to one of every eight years. By using a conservative stocking rate, a producer reduces the impact of a drought and has flexibility to hold yearlings or add stockers when rainfall is adequate. "Having too much grass isn't a bad thing," he says.
When forage and pasture supplies are low, consider how and where you will buy feed. If alternative supplies are unavailable or too expensive, another option is to sell cows.
Culling cows is an option when there are too many cows and not enough feed. Review the herd for open cows, cows in poor condition, depreciating older cows and late-conceiving cows, Meusch says. "Ideally, producers will have a drought plan in place that has already identified the cows that can be culled. Having such a plan in place makes it quicker and easier to sell cows if culling is required."
When feed is limited, consider the energy requirements of different classes of livestock, he says. "Understanding and prioritizing for the needs of pregnant and lactating cows is crucial for surviving a drought. Calves can be weaned early and stockers can be sold, but cows must be maintained if they are to be profitable in coming years."
Spring-calving cows with calves on their sides are probably the most flexible right now because calves can be weaned, making cows easier to maintain. Fall-calving cows, however, need to be carefully managed to ensure they maintain their body condition through the calving and breeding season. A drought this time of year is particularly challenging for fall-calving cows, Meusch says.
More information on forages is available from the Alliance for Grassland Renewal. The alliance includes partners from university, government, industry and nonprofit groups.
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