The drought has eased in places, but it persists in 40 percent of the U.S. and another 10 percent could revert if seasonal rains stay away this summer. That outlook from the USDA Drought Monitor has many ranchers short on grazing or water at a crossroads. Do they sell out with hopes of getting back in once the drought subsides? Or do they spend the money to feed and water their cows to preserve the genetics?
“It’s a scenario we’ve heard an awful lot about,” says Vern Anderson, Extension animal scientist at North Dakota State University. “Farmers and ranchers are scrambling for ways to keep their cowherds.”
From there to Texas, weather, feed prices and land values combine to inspire solutions that include drylotting the herd. Although feeding cows everything they eat sounds expensive, Anderson says it can work.
“The bottom line is cows are very adaptable, given a little bit of time. If you feed to meet their nutrient requirements, you can be very creative in what you feed,” he says.
John Perrin, Hereford, Texas, is looking down the barrel of a three-year drought.
“In 2011, I sold almost everything,” he says. “I weaned early. The older cows went to the packer. The younger cows I sold as bred. The only thing I kept was one load of bred heifers, and I kept them in my pens for a while.”
His decision to keep bred replacements instead of young cows was simple – they take up less space and require less feed and water. Using his vertical mixer to grind farm-grown hay with wet distillers grains, Perrin fed the heifers in troughs or on the ground. As time went on, he also grazed failed wheat and milo, as well as CRP ground opened due to drought.
“I was able to keep my genetics without having to start completely over. If you like your genetics, you should like your heifer calves. I knew I was looking at a couple of years before I had a calf crop to sell, but I also figured I was looking at a couple of years before I had grass,” Perrin says.
Sacrificing a small pasture or trap to confine a herd, they could be supplemented like in a drylot, Anderson says. Feed—whatever it is—can be placed in different locations there, and cows still have a little room to roam.
“Cows are very flexible,” he adds. “We’ve looked at a lot of products including distillers grains, wheat, barley malt, sunflower meal, all kinds of screenings. The first time we offered our cows straw for roughage, they turned up their noses at us, but after two days, they decided it wasn’t so bad.