June 17, 2021

5 Min Read
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As superstitions go, if you compose an article about drought, it will surely rain right before it goes to press. I sure hope so for those that need it. While much of Iowa has been spared from the deep red colors on the infamous U.S. Drought Monitor, we need rain. This article focuses on what beef cattle producers can do BEFORE your zip code shows up as an undesirable color on the drought monitor.

To some, preparing for a drought that never happens seems like an oxymoron. Farmers and ranchers are inherently programmed to respond to weather events, not prepare for them. However, having a semi-structured drought plan can certainly lower the stress level when the 10-day forecast looks unfavorable.

#1 Make Hay Acres “Grazeable” – If any of your hay fields sit next to pasture acres, this is fairly straight-forward. Just fence it in. If the weather turns dry, mechanical harvest of hay gets less cost-effective the shorter the forage is. However, a cow is really effective at utilizing short forages. Plus, she puts her fertilizer right back where she picked it up. When creeks and ponds have dried up in recent years, producers were frantically installing water systems to give cows access to rural water and deep wells. NRCS cost-share contracts were beneficial to some, but standing in line to wait your turn won’t water the herd. Submit your water system proposal before you need it; mistakes are far less likely when ample time is given to planning and construction. You might also consider investing in exterior fence for CRP acres. When the acres are released, you’ll be ready. When the CRP contract ends, you’ll have an immediate use for the acres should re-enrollment not be an option.

#2 Develop A Cull List – Most of us like to brag about the cows that ‘do their job every year,’ and cuss the ones that don’t. Some may find this exercise oddly satisfying, as it asks you to rank your cows in reverse order. You can even title it: “The First To Go.” Obvious candidates for this list include cows with poor attitudes, poor performance, poor udders, etc. Tagging or freeze-branding your cows with an indicator of birth year can be a useful tool during the culling process if age is the deciding factor on whether she stays or goes. Making these decisions earlier than all your neighbors can pay dividends at the auction barn, especially mid-summer. If cull cows flood the market due to widespread drought, prices will surely suffer.

#3 Early Pregnancy Diagnosis – This could actually be included as part of #2, but important enough to stand alone. Using ultrasound technology to diagnose pregnancy as early as 40 days gestation can be an extremely useful tool in a drought situation. It can also be a standard annual management practice used to enhance profitability. We’ve done several articles on the extra dollars gathered from calves born early in the calving season and the long-term fertility benefits from retaining heifers born early as well. Keeping the cows you know are bred up early is an easy way to help you develop your cull list. If you traditionally turn your bulls in June 1st, this can be done as early as mid-July if necessary. Use the trip through the chute as an opportunity to vaccinate calves, address fly control, etc.

#4 Consider a Summer Annual Crop – This practice has been picking up steam as the use of cover crops has expanded. Summer annuals are a great drought buffer that also offer flexibility to a grazing plan. The acres can be harvested for hay or haylage, then double-cropped. Should conditions turn dry, these acres can also be grazed to allow pastures to rest. Oats, millet, sorghum, or sudangrass are all obvious options; some offer multiple cuttings or even winter grazing options.

#5 Be in the Hay Market 365 days/Year – There are certainly seasonal trends in the hay market; producers largely purchase hay when they need it. During prolonged drought conditions though, hay can get REALLY expensive. Conversely, there are periods when hay will sell even below the cost of production. In some cases, the seller is just trying to ‘clean out the barn’ for the next year’s crop. Whatever the reason, hay prices can get really reasonable if you’re paying attention. There may be some cash flow implications from purchasing hay at an odd time of year, but the cost savings can be substantial. Purchasing hay also brings soil fertility nutrients to your farm and can reduce the need for commercial fertilizers. Knowing your true cost of production from hay you raise can be an incredibly useful number when purchasing surplus hay. In the last 3 years in Iowa, average quality hay at auction has ranged from $40/big round bale to in excess of $125/bale. Staying active in the hay market year-round is time well spent when drought conditions persist.

Finally, develop an implementation date. When do these practices take effect if it doesn’t rain? This date can be somewhat fluid depending on the weather conditions in the spring. As an example, if we use June 1, we usually have a good idea of our 1st cutting hay yield. We can visually see the height/potential yield of the summer annual. We need to make a decision before the June insurance deadline if we want to double-crop the summer annual acres. Your latitude and individual farm schedule may alter this date some, but circling a date on the calendar can be helpful. Setting these practices in motion will be much less stressful for those involved in the day-to-day operations. Just envision the list versus the alternative.

#1 Open the gate to the CRP field and watch the cows go by.
#2 Load the trailer with the cows you despise.
#3 Sort the late-breds and tighten up your calving window.
#4 Make the prettiest millet hay you’ve ever seen.
#5 Dig into that surplus hay stack you bought for WAY under the money.

Surely that all sounds better than loading up the herd you spent years building or bidding against all your neighbors for hay. Only one thing is guaranteed. It will rain someday. It always has.

Source: Iowa State Universitywhich is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset. 

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