Since ‘all bets are off’ in a drought, Kansas farmer Larry Johnson, of Council Grove, Kan., made a carefully-planned decision to conduct his cows’ pregnancy checks a month earlier than usual. Johnson was pleasantly surprised by some results, but is now cautiously approaching the Spring season, with brand new ranch management strategies.
“Because of the drought, we preg-checked one month earlier than usual this past year,” said Johnson, who owns the ‘Mashed O Ranch.’ Johnson has 800 mother cows and takes in another 1,200 yearlings for summer grass. “Normally we wean the third week of October, but this past year, we did it on September 19th. We had real good conception rates on our cows, and the calves were just 100 pounds lighter than normal,” Johnson shared. Using the services of a younger veterinarian, Johnson said they opted to conduct ultrasound on the pregnant cows, which was a first for Johnson’s herd.
Ranchers and farmers like Johnson and in other states who are propelling through the drought, are thirsty for new ideas and strategies to beef-up their management tools on the family ranch.
That’s why Johnson and three dozen others attended a Winter Ranch Management seminar at Kansas State University’s Animal Science Department in Manhattan, Kan., in early January 2013.
Anxious to learn new strategies for ranch management, the beef producers listened intently, as Dr. Bob Weaber, Ph.D, assistant professor and cow/calf extension specialist at K-State, kicked-off the program with an intensive series of ranch management action plans.
“The key to managing a family ranch in a drought, is to monitor the availability of groundwater, and make some plans, so that if you don’t have a certain amount of precipitation by a certain date, you can mitigate damage to range resources,” said Weaber, beginning the seminar.
“It’s important to consider, that if forage is limited, you can either supplement nutrition for the calf herd, or depopulate, and you need to evaluate which is better,” Weaber told beef producers. “If you decrease the number of mouths to feed, then you want to decide how to keep a core of productive cows, and preserve the economic-generating capacity of the cow herd,” added Weaber, who grew up on a cow/calf operation in southern Colorado. Weaber earned his Bachelor of Science in Animal Science followed by a Masters of Agriculture degree in the Beef Industry Leadership Program at Colorado State University. Weaber completed his doctoral studies at Cornell University.
Interestingly, Weaber’s twin brother Dave Weaber, is a cattle and beef marketing analyst who worked at CattleFax near Denver, Colo., analyzing how current events influence market trends like the demand for domestic beef.
Piggybacking on drought concerns, beef producers were also advised by another Kansas State University professor, to consider that there have been 41 droughts from the year 1700 to 2012 on the Great Plains; a region stretching from Kansas northward into the Dakotas.
“That means, a drought is possible during any one in three years. And, range forage production is decreasing for every year of drought, if we don’t modify the grazing systems,” advised Arturo Pacheco, research associate for a commercial cow/calf unit at K-State. He advised the crowd, “Have a plan, and decide how you’d handle a drought situation before you go into a dry period.”
Pacheco suggested getting assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to write a drought management plan. He also recommended farmers and ranchers keep records of precipitation and forage availability, and write drought contingencies into pasture leases.
Once a drought is underway, too often decisions are made in haste. Others may tend to procrastinate, which can lead to experiencing stress from their reactions. However, during his presentation at Kansas State University, broadcast over a webinar to nine locations across Kansas, Pacheco offered four important target dates and guidelines which he used, to handle drought with his commercial cow/calf unit at K-State:
April 1. If there’s less than 15 percent water-year moisture, then Pacheco would forgo spring burning, in order to leave a dormant forage for cows. Otherwise, cows could experience stress.
June 15. Farmers and ranchers need to have received 50 percent of water-year moisture by this date, otherwise Pacheco recommends increased monitoring of forage for livestock, and decreasing the stocking rate by 30 percent. (The stocking rate is the amount of cattle that can be put on a piece of land.)
“Ideally, there will be a comfortable happy medium number of cattle on the land. Reducing a herd helps reduce the grazing pressure on the land,” offered Pacheco.
August 15. About 70 percent of the annual forage production has occurred.
“If moisture in July and August is less than 70 percent of normal, then grazing should end by September. In our commercial unit at K-State, July/August was 55 percent of normal, so the stocking rate reductions were executed, per the management plan,” said Pacheco.
November 1. If moisture is less than 80 percent, Pacheco recommends reducing the stock rates the following year.
“The first step is early weaning,” suggested Pacheco. “It’s safe and practical for calves as young as 30 days of age, and results in a 30 percent reduction in the stocking rate.” Another tool is selective liquidation including transporting yearling cattle to a non-drought stricken area to attract better pricing.
“Also, cull the oldest bred cows and work backwards until a sustainable stocking rate is reached,” commented Pacheco.
Farmer Johnson agreed he may consider culling.
“This spring, if we don’t get a lot of water, we may have to look at culling some cows. It makes you feel kinda sick,” said Johnson. He acknowledged that cows that have a broken mouth, will be sold.
“In our unit, the open cows and those with udder quality issues were sold,” Pacheco advised the crowd. He noted that the last option is liquidating the entire herd. In that scenario, he recommends, first checking into transporting the genetic core to a place for custom feeding.
The next session at the K-State seminar highlighted the latest implications of nutritional management for beef cow/calf systems. The findings were based on a study conducted at the 13,000 acre Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory in Whitman, Neb., by Dr. Rick Funston, professor of Reproductive Physiology at the University Nebraska at Lincoln.
“In the research, we found no benefit to supplement during winter grazing on the cow’s ability to breed back, after calving. Even though body condition score was lower in non- supplemented cows at calving, due to the spring grazing conditions-the body condition score was similar to the supplemented cows at breeding, which may explain why pregnancy rates were similar,” said Funston.
However, Funston also noted that if you don’t supplement the pregnant cows, problems occur later in the calves which they’re carrying. Those included: lower weaning weights, lower carcass weights, decreased quality grade and decreased fertility in heifers.
Another suggestion Funston offered, is the financial benefit of calves born early.
“This is the economic driver. With a high percentage of calves born early within your calving season, the more profitable your operation will be,” said Funston.
Rancher Ed Durst who has a 400 head cow/calf operation and farms a variety of crops in Morrowville, Kan., learned new strategies at the seminar.
“It was interesting that Dr. Funston also said to keep a lot of replacement heifers, more than you need and put pressure on them during breeding season to make the season shorter (a 30 day season.) Although I see his point, it may not be feasible however in smaller operations, due to a small genetic pool,” Durst commented.
Junior (Calvin) Roop, who’s been farming since 1975 near Washington, Kan., agreed. Roop, who has 140 cows and farms 2,500 acres, said he came mainly to learn.
“Although I’m pretty set in my ways about how I feed in winter, there’s usually something you can come away with and apply to your operation. I agree that in our cows, good nutrition pays off in the calf,” Roop said.
Preparing the family business for the future, was another session provided by fifth generation rancher Donnell Brown, who streamed his ‘live’ presentation via the webinar based near his ranch in Throckmorton, Texas. With the R.A. Brown Ranch in operation since 1895, Donnell Brown provided a colorful slide pictorial of his family’s heritage and cohesiveness, mixing tips with inspiration.
“Cross-breeding Hereford cows with Angus is more profitable than straight breeding Hereford to Hereford,” Brown recommended.
Brown suggests thinking about estate planning and preparing the next generation.
“Get the kids off the fence and get them involved in running the ranch and keep it fun so your family can enjoy each other,” Brown said good-naturedly.
Quoting motivational speaker and author; the late Zig Ziglar, Brown advised the ranchers, “Help enough people get what they want, and they will help you get what you want.” ❖