April 30, 2018
Producers in drought facing decisions
by Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist
The latest Drought Monitor shows rapid expansion of the exceptional drought (D4) area to include about 38 million acres with another 126 million acres of D3 (extreme drought) conditions. Parts of the drought region received some rain in the past ten days; enough to slow expansion of drought conditions, but not enough to reduce drought without additional moisture.
About two-thirds of the D4 area is in the Texas Panhandle; western Oklahoma, including the panhandle; and southwest Kansas. In this shortgrass prairie region, May is a critical period when summer forage growth begins in earnest. If normal forage growth is absent or significantly delayed, cattle producers will face some critical decisions rather quickly in the next few weeks. Producers need to develop drought management plans now to survive in the face of a potentially extended drought that threatens the entire growing season.
One strategy is simply to hunker down, try to hold on to everything, and acquire feed resources to try to skimp animals through the drought. There are several risks to this strategy. First, the “get by” strategy of managing cows through a drought may simply postpone drought costs into future years by negatively impacting reproductive performance and future production. It’s important not to keep more animals than you can properly take care of. Another risk is the potential to hold animals, but incur so much cost that the financial health of the business is compromised for a long period or the economic survivability of the business is jeopardized.
Finally, abusing forage resources during a drought can lead to damage that requires years to recover from and implies reduced future production to allow time for the land and forage to heal after severe use. A comprehensive, detailed plan will help remove as much emotion as possible and will make it easier to make tough, timely decisions and is very important as well for the short and long-term mental and physical health of the producer and families involved.
The sooner a producer can evaluate and inventory resources, the more opportunity will exist to make decisions rather having decisions forced on them. Water, in some cases, will provide a harder deadline than feed. Producers relying on surface water must calculate available water supplies and use that to determine how to allocate limited water over time.
Additionally, it’s important to evaluate forage and feed resources available today, including standing forage, hay and other feed resources. The drought management plan should be based on that amount of feed availability and assume no or little new forage production. Very critical, but often overlooked, is to evaluate financial resources and realistic limits on additional costs.
At a minimum, drought results in some increase in costs. A critical component of the drought management plan is when to switch from “hunker down” to an active plan that involves revising production activities. This might include different production systems such as drylot production of some cattle or relocating cattle to another region. When animal numbers can no longer be maintained it is important to remember that liquidation is not an all or nothing proposition.
Make a priority list of what animals to sell and when that decision must be implemented. It may be helpful to determine the last core of animals that would be maintained prior to total liquidation and then work backward to figure out what order of liquidation would get to that point, if necessary. It’s essential to have action dates and follow the plan. Dates can be revised as needed if conditions change but not having dates results in emotional anguish and the temptation to “hang on for a few more days” that often results in bigger long-term consequences.
We never know how long a drought will last but whether it’s a few weeks or a few months or possibly many months, it’s important, not only to figure out how to survive the drought but to manage for the post-drought period during the drought. In the end, business survival is an economic question, not a just a matter of how many cattle we can hold onto for another two weeks… or a month… or whatever.
Key factors that affect the percentage of cows cycling at the start of breeding
By Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension Animal Scientist
The spring breeding season is upon us. May 1 is often the bull turnout date for many Oklahoma herds. Cows that are cycling early in the breeding season are more likely to get bred this year, raise a heavier calf at weaning, and rebreed on time in future years.
The most important factors that determine if – and when – a cow returns to cycling activity were analyzed by Kansas State University physiologists. Over a period of 7 years, Kansas State scientists used more than 3000 beef cows in estrous synchronization studies. As a part of these studies, they determined which cows were cycling before the start of the breeding season both before and after synchronization treatments.
They then looked at the previous data about each cow and determined the major factors that influenced the likelihood that she would have returned to heat by the start of the breeding season. The research indicated that three main factors were the most important determinants as to whether the cow would recycle before the breeding season began: Body condition, the age of the cow and the number of days since calving were the biggest influences on the incidence of cycling activity before breeding.
Body condition: Cows ranged in body condition score from 1 (extremely emaciated) to 7 (very fleshy). As body condition score increased, the percentage of cows cycling increased in a linear fashion. The Kansas data reported that there was an 18 percent increase in percentage cycling for every 1 full condition score improvement.
Age of the cow: The percentage of first calf two-year-olds cycling was about 10 percent less than mature cows that were having at least their second calf. The extra nutrient requirement for growth clearly limits the cycling activity at the beginning of the breeding season of two-year-olds. Also, two-year-olds are in the stage of life where the baby teeth are being replaced by permanent teeth. Some of these young cows have problems consuming roughage similar to “broken-mouth” older cows. This explains why many producers choose to breed replacement heifers ahead of the cow herd and therefore give them more days before the breeding season begins for mature cows.
Numbers of days since calving: Cycling activity was also influenced by the number of days since calving. For every 10 day interval since calving (from less than 50 days to 70 days) the percentage cycling increased by 7.5 percdent. A short calving season is important because it allows a higher percentage of cows to be cycling by the start of the next breeding season.