According to the most recent U.S.Drought Monitor, the majority of Arkansas, has returned to normal soil moisture, while areas from central Kansas and south through Texas and regions of the southwestern U.S. remain in a moderate to exceptional drought intensity. Georgia and parts of Florida and South Carolina are also experiencing exceptional drought intensities. Along with restored moisture, winter in Arkansas was exceptionally mild. According to preliminary data of the National Weather Service out of Little Rock, December, January and February were 2.7, 5.7 and 4.5 degrees above normal.
Cattle producers who sowed small grain and ryegrass pastures last fall should start to see the reward for their labor. Others, however, may still be a month or more away from having sufficient pasture forage for grazing. Until then, cattle producers will notice their cattle will spend more time seeking out whatever cool-season pasture plant they find palatable, such as little barley and buttercups, and less time at the round bale feeder.
While grassy weeds may provide greater protein and energy than hay or other fillers that were used this winter to stretch a short hay supply, they tend to mature quickly, such as little barley, or become toxic if cattle develop a desire to continue consuming buttercups through plant maturity. In addition, the overall amount of dry matter available in early spring is low, as plants contain 80 percent water content during this time. Past Extension demonstrations monitoring the monthly growth of replacement heifers observed between February and March recorded a lag in daily gain when heifers were being developed on a hay and supplement diet in a large pasture. The cattle producers participating in the demonstration recognized that the heifers during this period would spend more time seeking our green, growing forage instead of eating hay. The response observed during this transition may be due to many factors, including restricted intakes, greater energy expenditure and rumen microbial adjustment to a new diet.
With drought conditions lingering in the southwestern U.S. and the U.S. calf crop the smallest it’s been since 1951, calf prices should remain strong. Cattle producers need to focus on managing their cattle and pasture resources to take advantage of this market and capture higher returns.
Many cows in Arkansas were wintered on low-quality hay or a hay substitute such as poultry litter or cotton gin waste. The mild winter greatly benefited the cow herd. A general rule of thumb is for each degree below a cow’s lower critical temperature, her energy need increases 1 percent. Alternative roughages fed this winter contained insufficient amounts of digestible nutrients to maintain body condition at thermoneutral environment. Imagine how thin cows would be today if this winter mimicked 2009-10.