Managing cattle around drought
With their Gordon, Nebraska, ranch in the grip of severe and prolonged drought last spring, Nancy and Rex Peterson took stock of resources and long-term goals. Preserving the viability of their cow/calf operation for the future is especially important since their son, Patrick, and his wife, Krista, have become partners in the family business.
They defined two critical goals. “As we went into the spring and planned our management strategy for the year, we decided it was critical to preserve the health of our pastures,” says Nancy Peterson. “We determined that we needed to maintain the heart of the cow herd. From the outset, we knew this strategy would be costly, and we just decided in advance not to look at our bottom line.”
They then mapped out a plan for managing livestock in accordance with the unique needs of the growing season.
Diversifying forage sources to supplement a shortfall in grass was key to the strategy.
The reduction in grass for grazing 340 beef cows was dramatic. Growth at monitoring sites on rangeland told them the availability of grass for their normal 11-month grazing season was decreased by 60%. To supplement the shortfall without overgrazing their range, they took some fields out of cash-crop production and planted forages in their place.
Following are the five steps they took to deal with drought by managing diverse forages in accordance with conditions of changed livestock-management practices.
Step 1: Wean May-born calves from first-calf heifers at 60 days.
Since dry females need less forage, the tactic conserved grass use but increased costs of purchased feed.
They started the weaning process by placing guards in calves’ noses to prevent nursing. To acclimate the calves to a new ration, they fed them alongside their mothers for five days on a mix of modified distillers’ grains and oat-pea hay.
They grew the oat-pea forage on half of a 240-acre irrigated field normally producing a cash crop. After baling the oat-pea hay, they planted a cover crop mix of rye, oats, peas, sorghum, millet, turnips, sunflowers, and corn. The cover crop provided fall grazing for calves.
The rye will regrow this spring and provide grazing for cows. For two weeks after calves were weaned from the first-calf heifers, these females continued receiving supplement in order to get them in shape for a good conception rate at rebreeding.
The first-calvers received 1 pound per head per day of 32% protein corn-gluten supplement fed every third day.
After a 40-day breeding period involving AI followed by exposure to cleanup bulls, 96% of the 2-year-olds conceived.
“Our intent was to give these females at least two weeks of improved nutrition after weaning,” says Peterson. “Under challenging range conditions, first-calf heifers are most at risk for not breeding back.”
After breeding, the young cows were turned out on fields enrolled in the CRP and released by the USDA for emergency.