During the Cattlemen’s College program at the Cattle Industry Convention in Tampa, a panel of three respected ranchers offered some of their thoughts and experiences in adapting to the realities of extended drought.
The panel included O.D. Cope, who ranches in the Ozarks region of southwest Missouri; John Maddux, whose family ranches in western Nebraska; and Linda Davis from the CS Ranch in northern New Mexico.
Following are some of the adjustments each has made while dealing with, in most cases, multiple years of exceptionally dry conditions.
Drought began to affect the ranch in 2011 and became critical in 2012, as pastures stopped producing and hay supplies dried up. In response, the family:
• Sold yearling cattle earlier than usual to preserve forage supplies for the cow herd.
• Cut as much hay as possible and stored the bales under cover to reduce waste.
• Cut and baled fescue stubble after the crop was harvested for seed. Cope treated this low-quality forage with anhydrous ammonia to improve crude-protein content to 3 to 4 percent and improve palatability.
• Weaned spring calves in August and fed calves ionophores to help extend forage supplies.
• Preg-checked all cows and culled more deeply than usual.
• Cut corn silage and fed it to heifers and cows.
• No-till-planted small grains and turnips following corn harvest and on some fallow ground for grazing. Cope says cows and heifers did very well on the small-grain and turnip forage during fall and winter grazing.
• Plans to frost-seed legumes into fescue pastures this winter for improved spring forage.
The Maddux family runs about 2,500 cows and 4,000 yearlings in western Nebraska. The area experienced severe drought in the early 2000s, and many of the family’s current practices evolved from that experience. Maddux offers these tips and experiences:
• Hope is not a plan, he says. Drought tends to happen in slow motion, lulling some producers into a wait-and-see approach. Now is the time to identify key dates and action plans in the event the rains do not come.
• The Maddux family avoids feeding cows any harvested feeds. They calve in April and May to take advantage of spring forage growth on native range.
• They rent 15,000 acres of corn stalks to winter cows and yearlings.
• During a dry year with poor forage production, the goal is to get to corn stalks. Crop residues, Maddux says, are what allow the family to graze cattle year-around.
• Protein supplements such as cakes or dried distillers’ grains are powerful tools for extending forage supplies.Some cows on the Maddux ranch turned to eating yucca after the grass was gone and did well with 1 pound of protein cake per day.
• The family has weaned calves as early as 45 days but finds 60 days about right for early weaning. They use fenceline weaning on sub-irrigated meadows, reserving their best forage for weaned calves.
• Early-weaned calves need backgrounding on higherquality feeds until they weigh about 500 pounds and can utilize rougher forage. Lightweight calves convert feed very efficiently.
• Cows can maintain good body condition on limit feeding when calves are weaned early.
• Calves weaned at 60 days retain maternal antibodies and tend to stay healthy through weaning and beyond.
• Maddux says the ranch operation should focus on managing land, livestock, money and people.
The CS Ranch has been operating since 1873, with land ranging from 6,500 to 10,000 feet. The operation began with Herefords and now raises Red Angus and Red Angus-Hereford crossbred cattle. The water table in the region has declined for decades, making water a significant challenge every year. Davis offers these observations:
• Supplementing cotton seed as a protein source helps extend hay and standing forage.
• The family purchased a used Forest Service tanker truck and uses it to deliver water to isolated pastures where grass is available, allowing cattle to utilize more of the ranch’s land.
• Elk and other wildlife compete with cattle for forage and can damage fencing. The ranch runs a hunting operation, but revenues struggle to account for the associated costs.