June 15, 2020
Early drought planning will pay
By Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist
Drought conditions have expanded rapidly in recent weeks across western and northern Oklahoma as well as much of the western half of the U.S. Though many regions do not yet face imminent actions, it is not too early to develop drought plans. The natural optimism of agricultural producers and the inevitable hope that rain will come “any day now” makes it tempting to postpone drought planning. However, it is better to have a plan that is ultimately not needed than wait until conditions force decisions at a time when alternatives are significantly reduced.
Drought-reduced pasture and/or hay production may lead to a need to reduce forage demands in cattle operations. Early cow culling may be a place to begin. Identify older or cows without a calf that are likely culling candidates and consider culling early. Cull cow prices are seasonally higher now than they will be later in the year or if significant regional culling occurs due to drought. Early pregnancy testing can help identify cows that could be culled early.
Make a priority list of how additional liquidation will be implemented, if necessary. This should include older and open cows, growing replacement heifers, pregnant heifers, mature cows and so on. The list should include action triggers, which could be specific dates or based on forage conditions, that will initiate the next phase of liquidation. This plan may include consideration of relocating animals outside of the drought area and should evaluate the economic feasibility of relocating animals as well as the reality of locating and arranging a destination for animals.
Early weaning of suckling calves will reduce forage requirements of lactating cows and stretch limited forage reserves this summer and fall. These calves may be marketed early or moved into a drylot or semi-confinement backgrounding program. The feasibility of implementing such a program must evaluate overall economic potential as well as the availability of facilities, labor and equipment to feed and care for calves in a growing program. In general, supplemental feed supplies are plentiful and inexpensive this year and may provide more flexibility for cattle producers to stretch forage supplies.
All of these cattle management alternatives depend on early and frequent assessments of forage reserves and production to make decisions in a timely manner. These assessments should include feed quality, as well as quantity in order to plan for animal health and well-being. If additional forage or supplemental feed needs are anticipated, early planning may avoid the higher feed prices that typically accompany drought situations. The tradeoff between buying feed or liquidating animals is always economically tricky and inevitably wrapped in emotion that can cloud sound decision-making.
It is okay to hope for better conditions as long as you plan for the worst. Failure to plan for deteriorating drought conditions will lead to easier decision-making simply because fewer alternatives will be available. The result will be increased financial and emotional stress. A comprehensive drought plan that considers short and long run considerations will help guide decisions to reduce the stress for both the producer and the business.
“Preg” check and cull replacement heifers early
By Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension animal scientist
Many Oklahoma ranchers choose to breed the replacement heifers about a month ahead of the mature cows in the herd. In addition, they like to use a shortened 45-to 60-day breeding season for the replacement heifers. The next logical step is to determine which of these heifers failed to conceive in their first breeding season. This is more important today than ever before.
As the bulls are being removed from the replacement heifers, this would be an ideal time to call and make arrangements with your local large animal veterinarian to have those heifers evaluated for pregnancy in about 60 days. In two months, experienced palpaters should have no difficulty identifying which heifers are pregnant and which heifers are not pregnant (open). Those heifers that are determined to be “open” after this breeding season, should be strong candidates for culling. Culling these heifers immediately after pregnancy checking serves three very economically valuable purposes.
- Identifying and culling open heifers early will remove sub-fertile females from the herd. Lifetime cow studies from Montana indicated that properly developed heifers that were exposed to fertile bulls, but DID NOT become pregnant were often sub-fertile compared to the heifers that did conceive. In fact, when the heifers that failed to breed in the first breeding season were followed throughout their lifetimes, they averaged a 55% yearly calf crop. Despite the fact that reproduction is not a highly heritable trait, it also makes sense to remove this genetic material from the herd so as to not proliferate females that are difficult to get bred.
- Culling open heifers early will reduce late summer forage and winter feed costs. If the rancher waits until next spring to find out which heifers do not calve, the pasture use and winter feed expense will still be lost and there will be no calf to eventually help pay the bills. This is money that can better be spent in properly feeding cows that are pregnant and will be producing a salable product the following fall.
- Identifying the open heifers shortly after (60 days) the breeding season is over will allow for marketing the heifers while still young enough to go to a feedlot and be fed for the choice beef market. “B” maturity carcasses (those estimated to be 30 months of age or older) are very unlikely to be graded Choice and cannot be graded Select. As a result, the heifers that are close to two years of age will suffer a price discount. If we wait until next spring to identify which two year olds did not get bred, then we will be culling a female that will be marketed at a noticeable discount compared to the price/pound that she would have brought this summer as a much younger animal. Even in this unusual, topsy-turvey cattle market, it is unlikely that an open two-year old cow will bring more total dollars next spring than a long-yearling 850 pound heifer will bring late this summer. Most years there has been a sizeable advantage in sale price for the younger heifer.
Certainly the percentage of open heifers will vary from ranch to ranch. Do not be concerned, if after a good heifer development program and adequate breeding season, that you find that 10% of the heifers still are not bred. Resist the temptation to keep these open heifers and “roll them over” to a fall-calving herd. These are the very heifers that you want to identify early and remove from the herd It just makes good economic business sense to identify and cull non-pregnant replacement heifers as soon as possible.
Cow-Calf Corner is a weekly newsletter by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Agency.