Highlights of the surviving drought workshop for ranchers
Ranchers in western Colorado might feel like they are between a rock and a hard place with current drought conditions. Should they feed livestock, even as hay prices soar? Or sell livestock when prices are low?
Despite the challenges, ranchers can be strategic in how they respond. Two recent workshops for ranchers, “Surviving Drought,” aimed to provide information on strategic decisions and resources, and bring people together around this issue. As rancher and co-organizer Janie VanWinkle pointed out, “It’s easy to get isolated. We don’t work around a lot of people all of the time. But, we are all in this together. I don’t want people to think ‘I’m the only one in this boat — what am I going to do?’” The workshop was hosted by CSU Extension and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, in conjunction with the Delta County Livestock Association and Mesa County Cattlemen’s, and sponsored by US Tractor and Grand Valley Bank.
Here are some highlights from the workshop:
■ Understand the Economics of Decisions You Need to Make: Thinking about buying hay or selling cows? How about trucking cows to rented pasture? Decision tools developed by the Agriculture and Business Management team at Colorado State University Extension can help clarify the dollars and cents aspects of these choices. Jenny Beiermann, regional specialist in Ag and Business Management for CSU Extension, demonstrated two decision tools, “Buy Hay, Sell Cows” and “Drought Strategies.” Users can download these two tools, as well as many others, and input numbers for selling price, hay prices, days on feed, and more, and the tool returns estimated costs of keeping a cow versus selling her. As Beiermann pointed out “these tools don’t make the decision for you” and there are other factors influencing decisions, but keeping the economics in mind can help ranchers be more strategic with their decisions, and experiment with different scenarios before they make a decision in their operations.
• De-stock in a Strategic Way: Ryan Rhoades, CSU Extension beef specialist, reminded participants to be selective in their choices of which animals to cull. Options such as early weaning, selling open cows, cows with problems, and unused bulls are good places to start. If ranchers have production records, they can use these to guide de-stocking decisions. For example, late calvers, or cows with bad attitudes might also be good candidates for culling. Finally, Rhoades encouraged participants to think outside the box with their options. He posed one provocative idea as food for thought: selling pregnant cows. Since cattle prices are projected to stay low, Rhoades argued, is it really economical to keep a cow if you don’t have the feed and prices won’t be good for the calf next year?
■ Explore Cost-Effective Feeding Options: Hay is expensive, and prices are expected to increase if the drought in Colorado persists. Rhoades contrasted three scenarios, 1) range grazing with supplementation, 2) drylot feeding with mixing feeds, and 3) range alternatives, such as grazing on crop residues. All three were more economical than simply feeding hay and a supplement, but ranchers will need to customize to fit their own operations, based on the resources they have available.
■ Short-term damage to the resource impacts long-term profitability: Rhoades emphasized that short-term overstocking damages long-term profitability, so even in drought years, ranchers need to leave enough residual forage to meet plant needs. Options like de-stocking and buying feed are expensive, but may be necessary to protect the land and future profits.
• Farm Service Agency Programs Can Provide Assistance: The Farm Service Agency has multiple programs that can assist producers in the face of drought. Programs cover loss of forage due to drought and wildfire, the costs of hauling water, and livestock loss due to disease or wildfire. The programs can help producers in tough situations. The FSA recommends calling your local office to set up an appointment to find out what programs might be available to you, and what records you’ll need to bring in.
■ Take Precautions for Livestock Health in Drought: Drought poses unique challenges to animal health. Director of the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, Raye Walck, and rancher Robbie LeValley described a few considerations. In drought, nitrates can accumulate in forages like corn, sorghum, sweet clover, rye, oats and more, as well as in weeds like kochia, lambs quarter and pigweed. Excess nitrate in plants is converted to nitrite in the rumen of cattle and other livestock, which in turn can convert oxygen-carrying hemoglobin to methemoglobin, which cannot transport oxygen. This condition can be fatal to livestock. Signs and symptoms are blue tissues (versus pink) and blood may be chocolate-brown. If producers suspect that forages are high in nitrates, we recommend testing samples with Ward Labs or with CSU. If forages have between 3,000-20,000 ppm of nitrates, producers must blend down the feed, and feed is never safe over 20,000 ppm of nitrates. Walck also described a recent case of an animal with “fog fever” or Atypical Interstitial Pneumonia that came into the lab. This condition can be seen in cows as an unintended consequence of changing from dry rangeland grazing to lush pasture too quickly. As always with livestock, changes in diet should be made slowly. Introduction to lusher pastures should be initially made 2-3 hours per day increasingly slowly over two weeks. Since this is often difficult, cutting and drying the lush pasture before cattle are allowed to graze is helpful.
■ Bridge Fall and Spring Forage Gaps: One strategy to reduce feed costs may be growing an annual crop for fall or spring grazing. Seth Urbanowitz, CSU Extension agronomist for the Tri River Area, provided information on planting small grain crops such as triticale, oats, turnips and peas as well as planting teff to increase forage during the summer slump when most cool season forages produce less biomass or in a year where water might be limited. ■ Plan for Wildfire Emergencies: Ranchers face unique challenges in wildfire emergencies, and emergency managers and staff may not understand the situations of livestock producers. For example, when a fire occurs, emergency managers may close roads into the national forest. Cattle may be in allotments beyond the closure. Chuck Vale, regional field manager for the state of Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and rancher, shared tips and ongoing efforts he is engaging in with the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado Cattleman’s Association. Some of their work has been to increase coordination with emergency management staff to account for rancher needs in the context of wildfire.
Despite the challenges of drought, “we are all in this together. It’s not just you. It’s nothing you have done or have not done, it’s simply a part of the reality of what we do (as ranchers)”, VanWinkle said.
The workshop provided information on drought response in the short term, but drought is normal in this part of the world. Long-term profitability depends on making part of the plan moving forward. As Rhoades said in his presentation quoting Michael Swanson, “it is not the well-adapted that will thrive, but the adaptable.”
This winter, Colorado State University Extension will be offering a series of classes on building a drought plan for your ranch in western Colorado. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
All resources from the workshop are posted at: http://rangemanagement.extension.colostate.edu/surviving-drought-presentations-handout/. ❖
— This article was also published in the Plateau Valley Times of Grand Junction, Colo.