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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.

Step 2: Wean calves from mature cows at 90 days.

This step reduces grazing pressure on pastures. “The grazing of the calves doesn’t start impacting the grass until they start to get some size about in August,” says Peterson.

Like the 2-year-olds, the cows received a protein supplement to get them in shape for rebreeding. The Petersons started feeding the supplement two weeks before breeding and continued through the first heat cycle. The pregnancy rate was 95%.

After grazing native range, cows were turned out on cornstalks and later, followed the calves in cleaning up the cover crop mixes.

Step 3: Graze yearling heifers on rye.

We put our yearling heifers on two dryland fields of rye that we had planted the fall before,” says Peterson.

“After the heifers finished grazing the rye, we planted a summer cocktail cover crop for grazing. The cover crop was made up of BMR sorghum, millet, sunflowers, turnips, and soybeans. It grew quite well. In other years these fields would have produced cash crops.”

They again planted dryland rye for yearlings to graze this coming spring.

Step 4: Grow corn for silage.

Because of the drought conditions, we planted a pivot-irrigated field to corn for silage,” she says. “We chopped 100 acres of silage and harvested 17 tons per acre.”

Half of the silage they’ll stockpile as risk protection against continued drought into the coming year.

The other half they’ll dole out to yearling heifers taken in as custom feeders. “Custom developing heifers is an enterprise we’ve added as a response to the drought,” says Peterson, a veterinarian with prior experience in custom developing. The enterprise helps replace lost income from the conversion of cash crops to forages.

Step 5: Set a contingency plan for the future.

If the drought continues into this coming spring, our goal is to graze our native pastures as little as possible,” says Peterson. “If we have enough moisture for the rye to take off, we’ve got May grazing there. We will plant a cool-season annual mix like oats and peas that will be available for grazing the last week of June to the first of July. That will allow us to push more range into being grazed during the dormant season only.”

The Petersons have already culled cows, decreasing the herd size from 340 to 275 head. If the coming growing season brings no moisture, further downsizing of the herd may be necessary.

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