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8 steps to cow herd survival

Beef producers get the double whammy in a drought. Not only is herd productivity diminished, but also the cost of the single biggest input – feed – spikes. Feed makes up 60% to 70% of total costs on a cattle ranch.

Don't give in. Here are eight tips for survival from University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Shawn Deering.

1. Preg-check and cull ruthlessly. You can never really afford to waste a whole year of feed on an open cow. With limited and expensive hay, it makes even less sense. “Cull the old cows, the late calvers, and the bad udders,” says Deering. Take a hard look at the off cows – those that don't fit because of color or breed. Cull early rather than late, he says. “If you suspect other producers are going to cull, beat the rush and maybe hit a better market.”

2. Split into feeding groups. Give your cows a body condition score: thin, normal, or fat. Feed by groups accordingly to stretch hay supplies. “Young cows may need a little extra nutrition because they are still growing,” says Deering. “Put them with older, thin cows.”

3. Wean early. This will take some stress off the cows and may help rebreeding performance. It keeps cows from getting run down during a grass slump. “Calves weaned at 60 to 90 days old are pretty efficient converters of feed,” says Deering. “Their rumens are fully functioning, and they can handle forage.”

4. Creep-feed calves. It's long been debated whether this pays. Deering says if there's ever a time for it, it's in a drought when cows aren't milking well. Research says calves prefer milk, creep feed, and forage, in that order. “Some ranchers are successful with a system of creep grazing,” says Deering. “They set the fence higher to allow calves under it and into an ungrazed paddock to get the very best forage before the cows get there.”

5. Limit-feed cows. This, too, may have a place in drought. Cows and calves are fenced in a dry lot, and the exact amount of feed they need is brought to them. Corn or by-products can be mixed with forage to make a high-energy, nutrient-dense ration, says Deering. They get just what they need in a smaller quantity of feed. “It takes more management skills and attention to detail than grazing,” says Deering. Limit-fed cows are always hungry for more, so you may be tempted to overfeed.

6. Be creative with forages. Rotational grazing is one part of this. At its best, it has potential to double the carrying capacity of some pastures, Deering says. He also says you can consider seeding annual small grains (such as triticale, wheat, or oats) late this winter or next spring to produce a spring forage for grazing or baling. You can also seed summer annual grasses like sorghum Sudan. It can be available in six to eight weeks.

7. Go alternative. Ethanol by-products such as dried distillers' grains can complement low-quality forages. Deering suggests you spend $20 and have your forage tested for protein and other nutrients. “If all you need is additional protein, then you can price a supplement on a protein basis, not on something you don't need.” Cornstalks are not great feed, but “may be at least as high in nutrient value as low-quality hay,” he says.

8. Cushion the blow. Look closely at your stocking rates – animals or cow/calf pairs per acre. “A lot of pasture ground has gone to row crops,” Deering says. “Producers may try to squeeze the same herd size onto the reduced pasture acres.” If they are low-production acres, you double up on the overstocking issue. Recalculate your stocking density and give yourself a cushion.

Do the same on hay supplies. “I like to have at least a 30-day supply on hand for a safety net. That way, if I get into a bind on feed, I've got time to make some thoughtful decisions,” says Deering.

Survival Strategies From a Rancher

Drought in 2012 was hard on Chris Derks' pastures and cow/calf herd. Long-term risk-management strategies cushioned the blow. Weaning weights on calves were down by 50 to 60 pounds from normal. Pregnancy rates from last summer's breeding season also suffered. But he kept the 600-cow herd at King City, Missouri, together, and winter feed supplies will be adequate. He gives credit to these seven practices.

1. Seed triticale in the fall. This small grain (a relative of wheat) will produce early forage in the spring for grazing or haying. Last year, Derks harvested a high-moisture haylage crop of triticale in May, before the drought set in.

2. Plant sorghum in June. This annual crop can take a lot of heat and dry weather, and still produce a good volume of forage. Last summer, Derks seeded it in early June with a small amount of nitrogen fertilizer, got a timely shower, and had 6-foot-tall forage for haying in about six weeks. Then, with a little more fertilizer and another timely shower in August, he got a second cutting in late September. It will carry his cows this winter.

3. Cull hard. Derks has always done this, so he seldom has cows that aren't in some stage of productivity.

“I artificially inseminate cows and heifers once, then turn in the bulls. Cows get two heat cycles, and if they still aren't bred, they are gone,” he says. “That limits the calving season to about 50 days.”

4. Graze rotationally. Derks doesn't do this intensely, but he does rotate cow groups through pastures that are usually 40 to 60 acres in size. He never grazes into the dirt, which gives grasses the best chance to recover when it rains.

“I'm mostly fescue with several types of legumes interseeded,” he says. “They browned off in the worst of the heat in 2012, and I fed about 10 bales of hay. Then it rained, and the pastures bounced back enough to get me through.”

5. Creep-feed. Derks usually puts out creep feed in mid-July to give calves a boost in the summer grazing slump. “I started earlier last year, about July 1. But when it's that hot, the calves aren't interested in creep feed. Still, I think it does help in a dry spell.”

6. Supply adequate water. Derks' area was still dry going into winter, and his watering ponds need replenishing. But he is fortunate that most pastures have access to the rural water system. “Yes, it's expensive to buy water,” he admits, “but good and adequate water is so important, it more than pays for itself in weaning weights, pregnancy rates, and overall herd health.”

7. Stay positive. “Every year is different, and there is always a challenge,” he says. “I don't have any row crops; I just concentrate on the cows, and I love working with them and managing through whatever comes up. I learn and move on to the next year. I have to stay positive about it. What other choice is there?”

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