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Management key to holding onto herds

Robyn Scherer Published on 24 February 2012
New Mexico cowboys gather cows at C&M Hereford Ranch

The effects of last summer’s drought are still reverberating on the nation’s cattle. Cowherds are down, and many have moved from their homelands to other locations or were sold off.

As spring develops and turns to summer, management will be a key to cattle producers when looking to hold on to the herds they have left.

This year producers will need to think about more than just grazing patterns, as the land in many areas of the county are still trying to recover.

For producers in the South, this is vitally important. Drought-stricken land will produce less forage this year, and the stocking density will need to be adjusted according.

C&M Herefords, a 300-cow commercial operation in northeastern New Mexico, decided that instead of overrunning the land and overgrazing, they shipped 200 head to South Dakota, where they will stay through this fall.

This allowed the stocking density on the home ranch to be less and to provide more forage for the cows.

“The cows are spread out from 80 to 100 acres per cow, and our normal stocking density is 40 acres per pair,” says Kyle Perez, who helps run the ranch.

“We can’t spread them out any farther than that. We have gotten to the point now where it just needs to rain. We have been feeding them extra cake, and we have bought some hay and supplements when we start calving to keep them in good condition.”

He continues, “We hope we can get some rain in April and May. We are basically feeding them the best we can, and we have plenty of water so that’s not an issue.

We have the same management we have had in the past, but now it’s just on more acres. We were able to hold our numbers together with the option to take some to South Dakota.”

Not all cattle producers have adequate water, however. In some areas, that has been more of a determining factor in moving the cattle than the lack of grass and pasture was.

The Bonds Ranch in Saginawa, Texas, faced water issues and ended up moving 600 to 800 cows. The ranch runs 5,000 mother cows, 10,000 stocker calves and 10,000 feeder cattle.

“The cows that we kept here at the ranch – we have been able to maintain that herd,” says Missy Bonds, assistant manager at the ranch.

“We did it by shortening up our calving season through palpation and culled anything that wasn’t productive early on. We have really looked at their mouths, and anything that was an older cow went to the sale.

“The cows that we have here would have been cows that would be on their third calf, so they are really young cows anyway.

This year, instead of just culling the 10 percent that were open, we pulled more like 15 to 20 percent. We culled down to the most productive,” she says.

The cattle that were moved were shipped into the coastal regions of Texas, Kansas and even into Georgia. For the cattle that pasture land was not available for, they were moved into a feedlot, and the Bonds still have some cows that are on feed.

“Some of those cows have a grass trap where the cows that are due are calving right now. They aren’t calving in the actual yard itself because that can cause a lot of health issues,” says Bonds.

The cattle at the ranch are not on full feed, but they are being supplemented so they do not lose body condition.

“We did have to feed a little hay this year where we normally don’t have to do that,” she says. “We want to keep our cattle in good condition, so we are putting more protein out there for them and putting hay when we have needed it.”

For producers who have held onto their herds and are buying hay, current prices make it hard to be profitable.

In addition to this, hay production in 2011 was down 10 percent compared to the previous year, with the smallest crop on record since 1988, according to Ken Barnett from the University of Wisconsin Extension. It is estimated that 131 million tons were harvested last year.

Prices are unlikely to go down before the next crop is harvested, due largely to the diminishing hay stocks in storage.

On Dec. 1, 2011, stored hay was estimated at 90.7 millions tons, which is down 11 percent from 2010. It is also the lowest amount on hand since 1988.

In the drought-stricken states of Texas and Oklahoma, the stocks on hand are the lowest since 1985.

High hay prices might tempt some producers to overstock the land, but the effects of this can be disastrous. This is becoming a big issue in parts of the Southeast.

“The biggest issue that our producers are facing is overstocking and overgrazing, and subsequently losing some of our stands,” says Dennis Hancock, forage extension specialist for the University of Georgia.

He recommends a few tips on saving pastures and rangelands. “The first thing to do is identify some sacrifice pastures or paddocks and confine the damage to those areas,” he says.

“The second step is to ensure we are doing a good job rationing out our pasture as necessary. If producers can stagger that out and let that crop have some rest.

Pastures need at least 30-45 days of rest to prevent severe damage. And that’s assuming we do get some moisture.”

He continues, “In a rangeland setting, like many parts of the West, the rest period is a lot longer, and it takes a lot longer for pastures to recover.

In the East we are only two to three days away from a drought, but also only one good shower from having good pastures come back.”

Producers need to manage their pastures and rangelands daily, to prevent overgrazing and loss of species composition.

“Producers need to apply a healthy amount of common sense, and exercise daily management of pastures.

There is no rule of thumb that applies to everyone. It is a decision that needs to be looked at on a daily basis,” Hancock says.

However, as spring turns to summer and cattle go back out on pasture, there are many precautions they need to think about on a daily basis.

“Producers should not take off the table a decision to cull and depopulate,” he says. “The genetics of the herd are important to maintain, but at the same standpoint you can’t afford to kill out our pastures.

They are too expensive to renovate and bring back. It costs 500 to 800 dollars per acre to bring back a pasture.”

“One of the strategies our producers are using is putting more emphasis on stocker development in combination with their cow-calf operation.

They are putting more weight on the calves as a drought management strategy,” says Hancock.

“You can depopulate the herd without having to sell your genetics. We have a number of producers who have already started more stocker development programs and adding them to their portfolios because they are easier to liquidate if needed,” he says.

Many analysts are predicting another drought season, and this is not good for livestock producers. High cattle prices are helpful to producers, but the high input costs can be hard to stomach as well.

In order to maintain current herds, producers will need to prepare for another drought year this year, just in case.

“We try to plan for a drought every year. We stock lightly, and we don’t overgraze that way. Right now it’s more about managing our numbers so that next time we palpate, we will look at the grass again and adjust our numbers to what the forage has provided us with,” Bonds says.

Producers who manage their herds and land correctly should be able to continue in the cattle industry, even if there is another drought year in some areas of the country.

“We are trying to be optimistic and hope that next year is brighter looking than what this one was,” said Perez.  end_mark

PHOTO

TOP: New Mexico cowboys gather cows and calves at the C&M Hereford Ranch. Many are wondering how the parched pasture will recover after 2011. Photo by Tonya Orr Perez, AgTown Technologies/C&M Herefords.

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