“The problem with drought is people keep wishing it'll go away instead of making decisions — until Mother Nature or the lender makes those decisions for them. Then, it's not a decision, it's managing a catastrophe,” says Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University beef nutritionist.

There's plenty of wishing going on. Large chunks of cattle country are beyond parched, with little standing forage and little hay heading into winter. And what's available is typically too costly to be practical for wintering cows.

In Lardy's part of the world, some producers began selling cows in June. Producers have already turned cattle into grain fields that wouldn't make a crop, despite concerns about nitrate toxicity.

Even with more Conservation Reserve Program ground made available for haying through USDA's emergency program, high diesel prices make it less compelling. As if that weren't enough, in some areas where forage is available, ponds and dugouts have dried up, or are shallow and of harmfully poor quality.

In Colorado, Jack Whittier, Colorado State University Extension beef specialist, says winter hay and pasture will be fed up before winter ever arrives.

“The key difference this time (compared to the 2002 drought) is diesel cost $1.35/gal. then; it's $3 and higher now,” Lardy says.

That means even in-state hay is facing extra freight on prices that have escalated, even for poor-quality hay. As an example, Lardy says increased hauling fees and diesel costs add $36/ton to hay hauled 200 miles.

“The other difference is that in 2002 we were just coming into the uphill part of the price cycle,” Lardy says. Now, calves from cows kept this winter, let alone from heifers kept to replace or expand, will be marketed on the downside.

Explains Whittier, “It's time to make sure you're wintering the right cows, and the number of cows make sense. Watch the market and don't miss the opportunity to get some value out of problem and aged cows you can't justify wintering.”

Survival strategies

There's not much new about drought, the potential ways to work around it, or the fact no one solution fits every outfit:

  • Early wean — “We learned during the last drought that early-weaned calves get along very well in the feeding system,” Whittier says. “By getting calves off the cows you can extend available forage supplies and get cows in better condition before winter. You can use that extra condition as a buffer through winter.”

    He cites University of Nebraska research indicating early weaning calves reduced feed consumption of the cow by about 25%.

  • Ship cows — Lardy says some North Dakota producers are sending cows to feedlots for maintenance; others are looking to place them with someone else to winter them more like they normally would. If considering feedlots, Lardy suggests: “Find three or four worth considering, go visit them. Interview the managers, ask for and check references. Call the veterinarian and Extension agent in the area, too.”

    Whether at the feedlot or someone else's ranch, he stresses, even with the best of care, cattle are going into a different environment, then ultimately will be making the switch back home again.

  • Utilize alternative feeds — fast-growing annuals, if there's fall moisture, for example. Freight is obviously a key with purchased feeds. And some sources considered in the past, such as ammoniated wheat straw, are less available and/or more costly than they used to be.

  • Water — Lardy cautions producers to check the water and the cattle regularly. Total dissolved solids increase as water levels decline. When cattle must walk further into the water source there's more risk of injury or getting stuck in boggy mud, too.

  • Long-term pasture health — In extreme heat, cattle congregate near water. That means pasture utilization declines, while traffic becomes too heavy in certain parts of it. Lardy recommends self-fed supplement at the opposite end of the pasture to encourage cattle to move away from the water source.

One strategy more producers are beginning to embrace in Oklahoma is limit-feeding, says Dave Jones of the Livestock Nutrition Center at Fletcher and Chickasha. Producers in his area began toying with the practice during that area's last hard drought in 1998. You can find details about the strategy on page 16, “Making Hay Without It.”

Protecting the base herd

“For most people, the goal is going to be keeping a base herd of a certain size, but that goal will be determined by their long-term outlook,” Lardy says. Folks nearing retirement may decide it's the perfect time to exit the business, for example.

“Now's the time to sit down with lenders and tell them things are getting tough, how you plan to handle it, and what it will cost. We have lenders telling us: ‘These guys need to come in and talk about what's going on so we can figure how best to help them.’”

In the meantime, if there was ever a time to lock up feed prices, this may be it.

“I look for feed prices to really escalate this year. If producers wait to buy feed as they go, they could look at prices $30-$40/ton higher than compared to last year when we get into winter and demand increases,” Jones says. “Riding the cash feed market is probably a mistake this year.”