Ranch families and academics disclose their drought-coping tips.
Unfortunately, producers in the Southeast are becoming experts at managing around drought. Most have suffered through two years of extremely dry weather, and some poor souls are in year three.
Here's a roundup of their drought-management strategies:
Kevin and Lydia Yon's year-old commodity barn was already in the plans before the rain stopped, but it proved to be one of their most valuable drought-fighting tools.
“We use byproducts to stretch the limited amount of forage we have,” Kevin says. “We use corn gluten feed, soy hulls and dried distillers grains. We have also used hominy. In the past, we used cotton products like gin trash and whole cottonseed, but the drought has slowed that supply.”
The Ridge Spring, SC Angus breeders primarily use commodities for their young bulls and replacement heifers, but also use them to supplement their cows during breeding season.
North Carolina State University animal scientist Matt Poore says, “Everything is so expensive now, but byproducts are still cheap relative to corn or soybean meal. They're actually a better value now then they've ever been. With the price of fertilizer they can even be more economical than pasture.”
Use forage stretchers
By mid-July, Newberry, SC producer Wayne Satterwhite had yet to get one cutting off his bermudagrass hayfields. Instead, he's using wheat straw to balance his commodity ration. “We put 40% wheat straw, corn silage, soy hulls and hominy in our mixer wagon. We add a little water, and I'm surprised how the cows go for it.”
Satterwhite says he normally just gives the straw away, but with the drought, he and brother William, nephew Steve and his own son Kevin are baling it for their cowherd. “We're putting a value of $50/ton on it but it, probably only costs us $15 to $20,” he says.
The Yons are also baling wheat straw, corn stover, soybean stubble and almost anything else they can get their hands on to mix in their byproduct ration. Kevin says, “I started wondering why I was buying all these corn stalks and wheat straw bales, but I have used every one,” Kevin says.
“As long as you are balancing the energy and protein and provide a balanced mineral, they'll work,” Poore says. “These roughage sources do have feed value, and can potentially have enough energy to maintain a dry cow. A portion is digested by the rumen bacteria.”
Poore adds that wheat straw and soybean stubble are around 40% digestible, while the digestibility of corn stover is usually in the mid-50s. “A dry cow needs digestibility in the low- to mid-50s and a lactating cow needs 60%, so they're getting up there.”
He says, however, the products are low in protein. Wheat straw normally runs from 4-6% crude protein and corn stover is usually around 6-8%.
“Sometimes the byproducts we normally would use don't have a lot of protein to balance the low-quality roughages,” Poore says. “You can use a low level of urea, or you may have to add distillers grain, corn gluten feed or cottonseed meal instead of soyhulls, which we use quite a bit around here to supplement better-quality forages.”
In Saluda, SC, Clinty and Vanoy Clark grew their own protein supplement this winter and spring. In addition to using ryegrass for grazing, the Clarks baled the cool-season annual in April. “It caught the rain in the winter and got away from us in March,” Clark says.
He's grateful for the excess. “We had to start feeding it to the cows the middle of June.”
Poore says baling the forage was a good move. “It's a very good feed and meets the needs of most cows. On the average, it has around 10% protein and 60% TDN.”
He adds, “In a normal year you can get a big hay cutting off ryegrass in late spring, and in some cases, if you take the first cutting early enough, you might get two cuttings.”
Like the Clarks, the Yons are making use of ryegrass hay. But in addition to baled forages, they're stretching their feed supplies by grazing their cows on crop residues including corn stalks, cotton stalks and standing soybeans. “They have really helped us get through,” Kevin says.
“We had a group of dry cows that did amazingly well on cotton stalks,” Lydia adds. The rule of thumb for cotton stalks is one acre can maintain one cow for one month.
Manage the forage you do have
Intensive grazing with frequent rotation is a mainstay for the Yons, even during times of normal rainfall, but Kevin says it's even more critical now. “We're managing what grazing we do have so we don't waste any of it.”
Wayne Satterwhite agrees: “We've cross-fenced a bunch and it's really stretched the grazing.”
Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage specialist, says the South Carolina producers have the right idea. If you let cattle graze continuously, you're only getting 30-40% of the good out of that pasture. Go to a slow rotation and increase the efficiency to 50-60%. Up that to a moderate rotation, and you'll increase the efficiency to 60-70%. If you really get busy with the temporary electric fence and strip graze, you can increase the grazing efficiency of your pastures to 70-80%.
Lydia Yon says they're also using rotational grazing to help protect their bermudagrass pastures. “We have bare spots in the pastures. Last year we had a severe Easter freeze, then drought. The pastures haven't been able to recover.”
Once again, Hancock agrees. Letting cattle graze pastures down to their roots is asking for long-term damage. Because the roots store the sugars that keep the plant going, defoliating the plant will die back the roots. “If you continue to overgraze, the roots die back even more. Then the roots and the plant eventually die.”
Cull cows carefully
“We preg-check and normally move seven to ten percent of our cows, and keep bred heifers to replace them,” Satterwhite says. “Normally, we cull if they're open or for things like bad feet. But this year, our next culling criteria is what kind of calves they have.”
The Yons are also culling more stringently than usual, but Lydia says, “We try not to push the panic button and sell, even though it's tempting.”
Kevin adds, “We try not to let up on our marketing because we need the income now more than ever. If we have to, we'll buy some soy hulls and feed for 30 days.”
Curt Lacy, University of Georgia livestock marketing economist, agrees with the need for a plan when you're culling cows. He recommends culling the old open cows first. Next, cull the young open cows. Then, start fine-tuning and cull the cows that don't raise a calf large enough or of sufficient quality to pay the cow's annual upkeep. As a last resort, cull the three- to seven-year-old cows.
“That's pulling the plug,” Lacy says. “They're your most productive cows.”
When you do cull and sell cows, Lacy says to remember the basics of cow marketing: “Prices for cull cows are based on live weight and the percent of lean meat yield.” He says the base for prices is a cow with a body condition score of 4 to 6, with 1 being emaciated and 9 being extremely obese.
He cautions, “Move your cows before you run out of feed. Cows in good flesh, without obvious defects, sell better.”
Lacy adds, “Prices for cull cows in the spring and summer are higher than they are in the fall. Sell before Labor Day.”
“You're better off doing a good job with fewer cattle than a halfway job with a lot of cows,” he emphasizes. “Cull all likely non-productive cows. If they aren't growing, they need to be going.”
Becky Mills is a freelancer based in Cuthbert, GA.