MANDAN, N.D. – There are several strategies cow/calf producers can undertake to manage for drought years, according to John Dhuyvetter, livestock specialist at NDSU’s North Central Research Extension Center.
Speaking at the Morton County Soil Conservation District’s range health workshop in Mandan earlier this month, Dhuyvetter expanded on information he provided to livestock producers in southwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana last year at two drought management meetings.
Drought years do provide opportunities as well as challenges, Dhuyvetter said, as he pointed out recent headlines, including, “Japan to accept beef under 30 months of age,” “Feedlot placements lower than expected,” and “2013 cattle prices expected to rise.”
“We think there might be some opportunities in 2013 in raising and selling cattle,” he said.
There were not only opportunities in the headlines, but there were challenges too, including, “Hay stocks lowest in five decades,” and “Drought widens and worsens.”
Drought in the Central Plains expanded in January 2013, with Wyoming and South Dakota having areas of extreme and exceptional drought, and southern Montana, southern North Dakota, and Minnesota recording areas of severe and moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
As he drove down from Minot in northwestern North Dakota where there was more snow this winter than in the southern areas, he took note of pastures and the water situation.
Minot received 12 inches in one snowstorm in February, and that snow is staying with more, lighter snowfall adding to the snow on the ground.
“As I drove farther south, the snow dwindled,” he said, adding stockpiled hay looked shorter, and there were only patches of snow in southwestern North Dakota. No one knows what the spring will bring, but it is possible there will be some drought this year in parts of the Northern Great Plains states.
Planning ahead is the best strategy a cow/calf producer can have, he said.
Typically, cow/calf producers use the lowest value feed, which is usually grass hay, Dhuyvetter said. This winter, grass hay was selling for around $80/ton, so even with rising forage costs, forage is still reasonably priced.
“We tend to think we have fixed acres and we will run a fixed number of cows on those acres, but forage is not consistent,” Dhuyvetter said.
In the last widespread drought (2006), alfalfa and grass hay yielded producers only about 1 ton/acre. Last year, there was a large carryover of hay from 2011 which was a good hay production year.
Most of the state had good hay production in 2012, with a large harvest from acres coming out of CRP, Dhuyvetter said.
However, there was extreme drought in the South and producers in the North sent huge shipments of hay. Canada and North Dakota shipped hay to South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. That leaves less carryover hay for producers this year.
“We had more people in North Dakota selling their hay than ever before,” Dhuyvetter said.
As a result of the drought, hay prices have nearly doubled. In October 2011, grass hay was $53/ton and alfalfa hay was around $71/ton and in October 2012, grass hay was up to $87, and alfalfa hay was up to $141 a ton, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Nationally, hay is selling for $200/ton.
Dhuyvetter noted the alfalfa weevil cut down on hay yields in 2012 and eliminated second cuttings in the southwest.
“We were very disappointed with the first cutting and the second cutting was marginal or none,” Dhuyvetter said.
The weevil emerged in southwestern North Dakota in early May. Cutting hay early when there is economical damage caused by the alfalfa weevil is recommended, he added, but producers should call their Extension agent or go to www.ag.ndsu.edu/procrop/leg/alfwee06.htm for more information to get ahead of the weevil this year.
Having a stockpile of hay is necessary if drought comes, so cow/calf producers who sold hay last year should restock hay as soon as possible, he said.
To deal with the drought, some management practices Dhuyvetter recommends include:
– Cull cows are a big opportunity in drought years. Nothing gains weight like a cull cow, he said.
– Stock conservatively and have a destocking plan that includes evaluating forage growth, having a target date to wait until destocking and know which animals to target. It helps to have those cull cows in a separate pasture so they are ready to go when the target date is hit.
– Every cow/calf producer needs a stockpile of hay that can be used to carry over. With a lot of hay sold last year, stockpiles need to be rebuilt, but don’t stockpile good hay. Stockpiled hay can include CRP hay, barley or oat straw and slough hay.
A hay quality survey in 2006 during a drought showed the crude protein of CRP hay was half that of traditional hays like hay barley, but more than straw, and equal to the crude protein (around 7 percent) of slough hay, he said.
“This is where your ability to adapt buys opportunities,” Dhuyvetter said.
– A good grazing management program is important. Producers with good grazing management programs only had to cut 10 percent of cow numbers in 1989 after the 1988 drought year because of management practices, including good residue on the soil with a take half/leave half grass strategy.
Dhuyvetter said residue on the soil captures moisture so it doesn’t run off and more grass can then be grown with less rain.
– Don’t begin grazing until grass is ready. That results in greater root reserves and development and keeps grass in good condition even in low precipitation years, he said.
– Do light grazing from June 1 to July 15 as needed to have greater infiltration and stored moisture for better grass in drought years.
– Consider purchasing commercial cakes that contain all the nutrition cattle need. Dhuyvetter said that can actually be cheaper than trying to feed hay plus minerals.
– Damaged crops such as after a hailstorm are a good opportunity for cattle to graze.
“It might take some fencing and water tanks, but it is an opportunity,” he said.
– Plant cover crops post-harvest and use them for fall or winter grazing.
– There are a lot of opportunities to plant cool or warm season forages to get through different parts of summer. Consider such alternative forages as sudangrass, pearl millet, German millet, sorghum sudan, forage triticale or forage oats.
In a forage trial conducted at CREC, these alternative forages had protein averaging in the mid-teens and TDN averaging more than 60 pounds.
– Early weaning conserves grazing and cow condition. Calves can be provided creep feed if necessary, Dhuyvetter said. In addition, calves can be shipped earlier.
– Hardy, adaptive cows get through a drought year best.
– Graze hayland regrowth. Use screenings of all kinds found at nearby processing plants such as wheat, sunflower, pea, flax, barley and coproduct feeds such as soy hulls, barley malt pellets, wheat midds, oat hulls, potato processing waste, distillers grains, corn gluten feed or beet pulp.
– Do an inventory of feeds. Test your feed and test your water. Last year, after the drought in late summer, there were reports of poor water quality and nitrates in the feed, which is harmful to cattle.
Dhuyvetter said after the inventory, allocate the remainder of the feeding period to include limit feeding. A minimum of 5-10 pounds is needed per cow and consider alternative feeds and screenings to get by during the limit feeding period, he added.
“Do not skimp on good water and minerals,” Dhuyvetter said.
Last year after the extensive drought in South Dakota, Dhuyvetter said ranchers at Slovek Ranch shared what they did to get through the drought and most of it involved planning and grazing management, which is something they do every year in case they might have a drought year.
While Dhuyvetter did not attend the forum, he read about it. The main things the ranchers did were:
– Planned ahead and bought cheap CRP hay in October 2011.
– Took advantage of the opportunity to rent some additional pasture in December 2011.
– Rented more pasture in April 2011.
– Sorted out old pairs in June 2012.
– In July when the drought was significant, they sold old cows in July 2012 and weaned calves early. Also in July, they found hailed-out winter wheat to buy cheaply and limited heifer breeding to one cycle.
– In August 2012, they contracted distillers grains and shipped their cows to a better area while retaining ownership.
– In September 2012, they placed calves in the feedlot early.
– In December 2012, they built partial confinement areas so cattle that could be sold were ready to go so they could pull the plug quickly if necessary.
Dhuyvetter said the main thing to remember is to plan for drought early and have a drought management plan.
In summary, he said the important items for a drought management plan include stockpiling low cost feed when the opportunity arises; expanding the forage base with residue and annual forages; taking inventory, testing, and evaluating feeds and planning for drought; stocking conservatively and being prepared to wean, cull and sell, and protect the condition of cattle and range.