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Drought Strategies

After conducting considerable simulation work on the economic impact of alternative drought-management strategies for the 2006 drought, coupled with the 2002 drought, economist Harlan Hughes' has developed some conclusions that may surprise ranchers.

After conducting considerable simulation work on the economic impact of alternative drought-management strategies for the 2006 drought, coupled with the 2002 drought, economist Harlan Hughes' has developed some conclusions that may surprise ranchers. The North Dakota State University professor emeritus and author of BEEF magazine's monthly “Market Advisor” column, says his simulation work suggests the drought-management strategy a rancher selects is “all-critical.”

He recommends ranchers separate “de-stocking” decisions from “depopulating” decisions. The first concerns removing cows from the grasslands; the second, removing cows from ranch ownership.

De-stocking is a production decision, he says, while depopulating is an economic decision. These are two distinct management decisions, each with its own management decision variables.

Associated with a drought are three added economic costs that can be broken down into visible and invisible drought costs, Hughes says. First, selling the breeding females at fire-sale prices. This is the visible drought cost. Meanwhile, another visible cost is buying back or raising added replacements after the drought.

Having fewer calves to sell in the years following depopulation is an invisible cost — sometimes a huge cost. In many cases, the invisible costs exceed the visible costs.

Second, Hughes suggests that optimal drought strategies vary with stage of the cattle cycle. When calf prices are high, several drought strategies are possible. When calf prices are low, about the only strategy available is to sell cows.

The 2002 drought was characterized by low calf prices and fire-sale prices for bred cows, followed by high replacement prices after the drought. Meanwhile, in the current drought, we have high calf prices, projected higher fire-sale prices for bred cows, and projected lower replacement prices after the drought.

Thus, the optimal drought strategy for 2006 probably isn't the same as the optimal drought strategy for 2002. Be careful using your 2002 experience in formulating your 2006 drought strategy, Hughes says.

“I'm simulating two different drought strategies — selling off 30% of the females to reduce grass demand, and buying feed and keeping the original cow herd in place. I'm currently looking at the compounding economic impact of the 2002 drought, and now a 2006 drought, projected over the total decade for the years 2000-2009,” Hughes says. “As a general comment, the droughts of 2002 and 2006 are projected to reduce the 10-year total net-cash flow on my case ranch by 43%!”

His simulations suggest buying feed and keeping the cow herd in place in the 2002 drought in order to continue selling full production of calves produced during the high-priced phase of the cattle cycle reduces the dollar impact of the drought substantially over the more traditional drought strategy of de-populating some of the herd in 2002. It is the record calf prices in 2003, 2004 and 2005 that made this difference.

His simulations also suggest, given the high firesale prices of breeding females, at least so far into 2006, that it makes more economic sense to de-populate the beef cow herd in the 2006 drought and re-populate the herd in 2-4 years when bred females are projected to be lower priced. This is just the opposite strategy as suggested for the 2002 drought.

Hughes says his work suggests the drought management strategy you pick is all-critical!

Editor's note: Hughes is offering a new CD, entitled, “The Economics Of Drought Management Strategies.” To order, send $25 to Harlan Hughes, 30 Ramble A Road, Laramie, WY. 82070.

Harvest concerns for drought-damaged crops

Drought is taking a toll on crops, writes Terry Mader, University of Nebraska animal science professor, at With little rain and depleted subsoil moisture in some areas, he says crops may not survive the growing season for fall harvest.

“In the present immature stage of growth, green chopping, haying, or grazing are options to consider for corn, sorghum hybrids and soybeans,” Mader writes. “If silage is to be made, some fields could be ready by mid-August or earlier, after that the plant may become too dry for good fermentation to occur. Optimum plant moisture for silage is 65%.”

Drought-damaged crops can be harvested as hay. With coarse-stalked crops, adequate drying time is needed. Plants will dry more quickly if crimped as they're cut. Since the stalks are coarse and leaves dry, corn plants in particular can be baled in round bales at around 20% moisture.

If tonnage is too low to mechanically harvest, drought-damaged crops can be grazed, he points out, but nitrate toxicity is a concern with corn and sorghum plants. Immature, drought-damaged plants are likely to be highest in nitrate content. If nitrates are a concern, cattle should be removed from the field before they graze the lower portion of the stalk, where nitrate concentration tends to be heaviest.

Many cattlemen feed drought-stricken crops as green chop. If the damaged crop is prone to being high in nitrates, take precautions to reduce the risk of livestock losses. A nitrate analysis is recommended. An analysis on the lower third of the plant prior to harvesting is a good indication of what the highest levels of nitrates may be.

If a nitrate analysis isn't conducted on the silage or green chop, Mader advises feeding it to a few animals for a couple of days while observing for toxicity problems, before offering it to the whole herd.

“Turning a few tester animals in first to screen for nitrates is a good idea if you're going to graze a drought-stricken field,” he says.

Don't hold green-chopped corn or sorghum overnight, or let it heat or spoil. A delay in chopped forage will increase the conversion of nitrates to nitrites by bacterial action and increase toxicity several-fold. Chop and feed on a daily basis using a relatively coarse cut, and don't feed more than the cattle will eat in a few hours.

If green chop isn't needed immediately, it can be ensiled, as silage often loses a third to half its nitrate content once fermentation is complete. Of the harvesting alternatives available for immature drought-stricken crops, ensiling is preferred, Mader says.

He cautions producers to, before beginning any harvesting, check into any crop-insurance provisions that may apply. More info on nitrates and prussic acid may be obtained from your local Extension office.

Editor's note: Learn more about drought management at Click on “Drought Management” from the list on the opening page.

A step-up program for early weaning

How do you get very young, early-weaned calves to eat when it's brutally hot outside? K.C. Olson, Kansas State University associate professor of cow-calf nutrition and management, offers this advice.

He says his “step-up program” has produced outstanding results with eight different sets of calves over the last several years. Details of the diet change from year to year but the principles of managing water and feed intake basically have stayed the same.

Olson likes to provide water in large (more than 300-gal.), open-top tanks. Position the tanks perpendicular to the fence line so calves will encounter them as they circle the pen. One larger tank can be split between two adjacent pens. He cleans the tanks every 2-3 days.

“Producers shouldn't expect newly-weaned calves — especially early-weaned calves — to be able to drink adequate water from a watering device they have no experience using,” Olson says.

Olson's suggested step-up weaning feed program is based on tight control of intake. Its goal is to have early-weaned calves consuming about 1.7% of their body weight (DM basis) of a 65-85% concentrate ration seven days from the time they're weaned. In recent studies, he used a sorghum grain-based ration to feed early-weaned calves. Other rations with similar characteristics would work about as well, he says.

For a basic concentrate ration he uses:

  • 50% rolled sorghum grain.
  • 25% corn gluten feed (loose).
  • 15% chopped hay (3-in. particle size).
  • 10% whole raw soybeans.
  • A “custom” supplement containing minerals, vitamins and ionophores.

“Our hay is good-quality, 10-12% crude-protein prairie hay chopped in a standard round-bale processor,” Olson explains. “Our calves are 130 days old and weigh just over 300 lbs. when weaned.”

Feed is offered once/day at 5 a.m. His suggestions, on page 32, are on an “as-fed” basis.

K.C. Olson's seven-day step up plan:

Day 1: Wean early in the morning and expose calves to feed that afternoon. Offer each calf 1.5 lbs. of concentrate, 0.3 lbs. of custom supplement and 1.5 lbs. more chopped hay. The concentrate goes into the bunk first, the supplement second, and the extra hay on top. After 23 hours, sweep the bunks clean — discarding any remaining feed.

Day 2: Offer 3 lbs./head concentrate, 0.3 lbs. of custom supplement and 3 lbs. more chopped hay. The feeds are placed in the bunk as they were on Day 1. Sweep bunks after 23 hours.

Day 3: Offer 3.5 lbs./head concentrate, 0.3 lbs. of custom supplement and 2.5 lbs. more chopped hay. The feeds are placed in the bunk as they were on day one. Sweep bunks after 23 hours.

Day 4: Offer 4 lbs./head concentrate, 0.3 lbs. of custom supplement and 2 lbs. more chopped hay. The extra hay goes into the bunk first, the concentrate second and the supplement on top. Sweep bunks after 23 hours.

Day 5: Offer 4.5 lbs./head concentrate, 0.3 lbs of custom supplement and 1.5 lbs more chopped hay. The feeds are placed in the bunk as they were on Day 4. Sweep bunks after 23 hours.

Day 6: Offer 5 lbs./head concentrate, 0.3 lbs. of custom supplement, and 1 lb. more chopped hay. The feeds are placed in the bunk as they were on Day 4. Sweep bunks after 23 hours.

Day 7: Offered 6 lbs./head concentrate and 0.3 lbs. of custom supplement. Each day thereafter, read bunks at 6 p.m. and 4 a.m. When feed is consumed by 6 p.m., an additional ¼ to Ω lb. of concentrate is added to the next day's feeding. Sweep bunks as needed to keep fines to a minimum.
Clint Peck

Drought and infertility

Infertility needs to be steered out of beef-cattle management systems, says Kris Ringwall, North Dakota State University Extension beef specialist. During a drought is a good time to make those hard decisions.

Bulls incapable of settling cows are useless and, with the current feed shortage, compromise the system. Open and late-calving cows impact the bottom-line the same as infertile bulls, he says.

Early detection of open or later-calving cows can be a potential group of cattle to cull. Ringwall says Cow Herd Appraisal Performance System (CHAPS) benchmarks indicate 6.6% of the cow herd is typically open in any given year, and 5.4% of the cows typically calve very late (defined as 63 days after the start of the calving season).

Another 8.2% of cows typically calve between Days 42 and 63 of the calving season. This group of cows is another potential group for culling.

Heifers are another area to review, Ringwall says. CHAPS data indicate only 71% calve within 21 days and 85% calve within 42 days of the start of calving. This could be an area to review.

“The bottom line is simple. Call your veterinarian and get that ultrasound date booked so you have an idea of your calving spread, and can cull as feed supplies and performance dictate,” he says.

Stocker management program feeding could provide drought strategy

Though still a novel concept to most cow-calf producers, a growing number of stocker operators are utilizing program feeding to work their way around a lack of forage, and to improve the predictability of cattle performance.

In fact, barring lots of late-summer and early-fall rains, Dave Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef cattle specialist, sees program feeding as the primary opportunity for stocker operators in his neck of the woods.

“It's serious and getting more serious every day,” Lalman says of his area's environmental conditions. “If an operator has the facilities, skill and ambition, it's another year — like 1998 — when feeding with corn and a supplement, or with corn and commodities, can achieve a respectable cost of gain.”

In fact, at current prices, Lalman says, “We can develop a program ration for $110 to $120/ton, another $10/ton if you have someone else do the blending. That's 6¢/lb. for feed with conversions of 5:1 to 6:1.”

For producers with little or no program-feeding experience, Lalman advises, “You have to go into it with the right mindset and understand the principle behind it. You're feeding a high-energy ration but only about two-thirds to three-quarters of what the cattle would eat ad libidum… It won't work on pasture because you have to control what the cattle consume.

“Program feeding is all about you deciding what you want the cattle to consume and to gain…You can't be sloppy. You have to feed every day at about the same time, and have the capacity to feed the right amount; you can't guess at it,” he adds.

You can find a complete description of the practice, as well as sample rations, in the OSU Extension fact sheet CR-3025 at
Wes Ishmael

TAGS: Disaster