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9 Drought-coping tips from ranchers who have been there

There’s a saying in cattle country: You’re either in a drought, coming out of a drought, or about to go into one. Dry weather is never far away. Here are nine tips from three ranchers who have learned to cope with drought.

1. Make a plan early.

Clawson Ranch Partnership, with cows in southern Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle, first learned this lesson in a major drought in 2001-2002, says David Clawson, who runs the ranch with his brother, Dan. “We didn't have a plan and kept expecting it to rain,” Clawson says. “Unfortunately, it didn't, and we were feeding the cattle and expecting the best. The stress was from not knowing what steps to take.”

That’s when he adopted a drought plan for himself and the grubbed-in pastures. “We made a plan to start selling pairs into Missouri where they had grass,” he says. “The angst decreased measurably.” 

They’re in drought again this year, and their current plan went into place last winter. “We put up extra sorghum silage and planned to feed our calves longer to add weight, since the wheat pasture was poor,” says Clawson. “As the drought intensified, we followed our plan and sold our calves earlier, along with some smaller calves that we planned to graze in the summer. That let us spread out our cow-calf pairs on the available pasture.” 

2. Don’t try to feed your way through a drought.

“You rarely can make that work,” says Clawson, “unless you have access to a cheap feed source and are not just hauling in hay.”

He proved that to himself in a big drought in 2011/2012. “We implemented our plan and decreased our herd size, rather than buy more feed. We found a home for some of our cows on eastern Kansas grass. We didn't get to fully enjoy the high prices of 2014 because of the lower numbers we had. However, we know we would have spent way more on feed than the high price we might have received for our calves.”

Rather than buy feed in a drought, his advice is to sell some cows, even young ones you really hate to part with. “We often think that if we work harder we can get through it, but sometimes we need to think smarter first,” says Clawson. “I’m one of the worst for thinking our cows are so much better because of our strict genetic selection. But after 30 years of trying, I’ve learned that there are many other good cows out there you can buy when good grass returns.”

 3. Put good judgment ahead of your pride.

“Pride can stop you from making the right decision for your and your family’s well being,” says Clawson. “There’s always another avenue to manage your way through a drought. Keep all the options open.”

4. Get your cattle inventory correct.

It was in a drought cycle between 2000 and 2005 that Steve Wooten and his family of Beatty Canyon Ranch in southeast Colorado realized they were getting less rainfall on average, to just 9 to 12 inches per year. Adjustments in grazing management and cow inventory were needed. 

“We recognized that the carrying capacity of our ranch was probably not returning to pre-2000 levels for some 30 or more years,” says Wooten. “We decided to reduce our cow herd by 30% to more accurately match forage availability. We now have 600 cow-calf pairs, and graze them on about 100 acres per pair. Under these more conservative stocking rates we have seen our weaning weights increase by about 5%, which makes up for some of the reduced inventory.”

5. Cull ruthlessly.

You can build a cow herd that’s adapted for drought, Wooten believes. “We adopted a minimum body condition score at fall weaning of 4+. Any cow below that is culled, no exceptions! We cull any cow that does not bring a calf to spring branding. A barren cow is not allowed to compete for scarce forage against a producing one.”

In the first two years of this approach, Beatty Canyon Ranch culled about 20% of the cows, says Wooten. “But they were replaced with better genetics in the replacement heifers. We now have a cow herd that is fully adapted to our arid conditions.”

He believes this type of hard-core genetic selection can lead to cows that better maintain body condition, even in drought. “We purchase bulls from seed stock producers that operate much like we do,” he says. “We learned long ago that purchasing replacements outside of our environment requires a three- to five-year acclimation period.”

6. Think way ahead. Beatty Canyon Ranch grows grass this year for grazing next year.

“Our cowherd has at least one additional year of forage grown out ahead of them in the pastures,” says Wooten. “We defer a percentage of our pastures from grazing each year, then start with those pastures in the next grazing season. Then we rest another set for the following years. Our cows don’t graze green grass, it’s brown. They’re adapted to that.”

With this one-year-ahead mentality, Wooten knows that if a drought intensifies they do not have to make drastic liquidation decisions. “The rested pastures can get our herd to a better marketing time that allows us to capture more income.”

Sometimes in drought, Wooten says they can reduce cow liquidation by early-weaning calves at 170 days of age. This reduces the caloric requirement of a cow by 30% so she can graze on the drought-stricken dry forage. “And we can provide quality feed and supplement to the growing calves,” he adds.

Currently, Beatty Canyon Ranch is in the second year of severe drought, but they have not purchased forages to feed the cow herd and have maintained normal culling activity.

7. Stocker cattle provide a buffer.

“We try to minimize the worry of selling our best cows in a drought by using a stocker cattle model,” says Bob McCan of McFaddin Enterprises, a family ranch, in south central Texas. “We buy some stocker calves, mostly from Mexico, when we’ve got good grass, and sell them first if drought develops. We also buy stockers when coming out of a drought to shore up cash flow due to reduced cow numbers.”

McFaddin Enterprises also keeps a lot of their Hereford-Brahma crossbred heifer calves for their own replacement program, and for selling to other producers. “Those heifers help us manage through a drought,” says McCan. “If we need to sell down our total cattle inventory, the heifers are the first animals we sell. And if we have to sell some of our productive cows, the heifers are our build-back strategy when it begins to rain again.”

8. Get on it early.

McCan repeats this tip from drought-experienced ranchers. “We can count on a drought here every four to five years, it’s recurring,” he says. “2011 was really bad, the worst in my lifetime, but we’re close to it again right now. Multi-year droughts are the ones that take a big toll. We’ve learned that we have to plan ahead for what we intend to do.

Early culling like that makes it easier to cull older or open cows, he believes. “We sold about 15% of our cows early this year to get down to the number we thought we could support in this drought.”

9. Lengthen your grazing cycles.

McCan typically puts about 260 cow-calf pairs into a 600-acre grazing paddock for about two weeks, then moves them to another paddock. This lets them practice the take-half-leave-half approach to rotational forage management. 

“But in a drought, we will lengthen that time in a paddock out to three weeks, or even a little more,” he says. “We slow down the rotation to give other pastures longer rest and more time to recover. In a drought, it takes longer.” 

This slower rotation may mean you graze off more than half of the forage. “Eventually, you hope the drought will ease, and those pastures will recover,” says McCan.

“Of course, you always have to closely monitor cow body condition and overall pasture conditions,” he summarizes. “Both of those things are much more important to watch when you’re in a drought.”

New Company Helps Ranchers Manage In Drought

A livestock business management technology company called AgriWebb, which started in Australia and expanded to the U.S. less than two years ago, is helping ranchers (including those featured in this story) manage their land and cattle more effectively in drought.

U.S. marketing manager Matt Shoup says AgriWebb gives ranch customers a literal 30,000-foot view of the ranch with interactive aerial maps, then combines that with weather data, to track and anticipate forage availability. “AgriWebb lets users set forage amounts to be left in each pasture,” says Shoup. “As you move animals from one pasture to the next, AgriWebb will track current forage, growth rates, and incoming stocking rates to calculate how many grazing days are remaining based on the data you’ve input. You don’t have to guess.

AgriWebb - Map Livestock US

“You can use the information to compare to historical years, identifying immediately if there is less grass than the previous year.”

Shoup says the goal is to help producers prevent overgrazing or undergrazing. One customer (Wray Cattle Co.) was able to graze each pasture 14 days longer due to information obtained from AgriWebb, resulting in an $80,000 savings for that ranch. You can learn more about the Wray Cattle Co. story by clicking here.

The price of AgriWebb is calculated per head and starts at $25 per month for those running up to 50 head of cattle.

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