Cow-Calf Corner: Cattle producers prepare for another dry winter

source:“Cow-calf Corner”

by Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist

The last 30 days has brought significant rainfall to parts of Oklahoma. Much of the central and south central parts of the state have received very timely rains with respect to wheat production. Winter wheat planting is about on track compared to normal at this time of the year.

Some was dry planted earlier and some is just now being planted. However, wheat emergence is below normal for this date and last week, 42 percent of the Oklahoma wheat crop was rated fair with 32 percent good and 4 percent excellent. This confirms that the wheat crop is late and will result in little grazing potential for the remainder of 2011.

Depending on winter weather and additional moisture, there may be limited grazing potential after Jan. 1. All of this is to say that winter wheat will provide little fall forage. To the extent that any wheat grazing potential develops through the winter, the wheat is likely to be used mostly for cows rather than for stockers.

Most cattle producers by now probably know their situation for the winter. I imagine that most producers have reduced cattle numbers enough to match forage supplies and have made arrangements for most of the purchased feeds they will need. As a result I expect that drought forced movement of cattle will slow down through the normal cow culling period of the next three weeks or so. Oklahoma auction totals for cows and bulls are still well above year ago levels the past three weeks but have dropped significantly from the extremely high levels seen in August and September.

While lack of feed will likely result in some continued movement of cattle, it is water availability that may be the most critical factor for producers in getting through the winter. Cooler weather will help stretch remaining water supplies and may reduce some of the water quality problems associated with warm weather. However, overall water supplies will continue to tighten without one or more heavy rainfall events to replenish stock ponds.

There are a number of management factors that cow-calf producers should undertake to prepare for winter. Hopefully, producers have already completed pregnancy examinations to ensure that any cows kept through the winter will indeed produce a calf. Many producers are using purchased forages that are highly variable in quality and producers need to carefully manage the nutritional status of cows to manage feed costs and simultaneously ensure the viability of next year’s calves and cow rebreeding potential.

Dried up ponds may provide an opportunity for pond management if cleaning or other pond structure maintenance is needed. High cattle prices continue to provoke cattle thefts and producers should carefully monitor cattle. Hay supplies likewise should be monitored against theft and against fire danger that will grow through the winter.

Adverse situations always seem to bring out the best and the worst in people. There are many, many examples of neighbors helping neighbors in this drought and oftentimes those neighbors are people several states away that have never met. However, there are already numerous reports of unethical dealings, especially with respect to feed sales.

My travels recently confirm that there is still a steady stream of trucks moving hay from north to south in the Plains. Many deals are made over the phone and buyers, out of desperation and a generally trusting nature, are sometimes being taken advantage of. Issues range from poor quality hay being misrepresented as to quality; to truckloads of hay being watered down and arriving at the destination with 25-30 percent moisture and a huge shipping bill.

There have been some reports of feeds being extended with sawdust and other fillers and masked with molasses. No doubt these problems will get worse as we move through the winter and feed supplies dwindle. It is definitely buyer beware and producers buying feed need to be careful to use good business practices and common sense in purchasing feed. Feed and forage testing is cheap insurance against the investment producers are making in feed to maintain cows through this drought. Most of the really good deals on feed really are not good deals. Nowhere is the old adage more true than in this situation: if it seems too good to be true it probably is.

Cow-calf Corner” is a weekly newsletter edited by Dr. Glenn Selk, Extension cattle specialist Emeritus at Oklahoma State University with contributions from additional OSU Extension specialists.