By managing stressed pastures, supplemental nutrition and overall animal health, an East Texas ranch manager maintained a 90 percent or more calving rate and a strong calf crop during the worst drought in decades.

Wayne Cockrell is like thousands of ranchers and ranch managers who battled dreadful drought this year and in 2011. Close to 1 million cows have been liquidated, mostly in the Southwest, due to dried up pastures and water sources and high costs of supplemental forages and other feed. But Cockrell got a drop on drought early enough to manage through the worst of it without major losses.

He manages the Carter Ranch at Oakwood, Texas. On average, it maintains about 16,000 acres of native grass and wheat pasture, with a 60 percent cow-calf, 40 percent stocker ratio. Cows are Brangus-baldy-cross bred to Angus bulls. Coastal Bermuda is the primary pasture grass. A late winter-early spring fertilizer program along with timely rains help generate solid grazing and good cattle performance.

However, after the 2011 drought, there was little long-range value from big rains over the winter and early spring after this year’s dry sweltering summer parched rangeland again.

“When we went into last fall, we were extremely short on pasture and couldn’t plant any wheat for grazing,” Cockrell says. “But we hadn’t bought any yearlings in fall of 2010, so we were actually able to take advantage of the pasture we had and add 1,000 cows to the inventory for 2011. After we finally started receiving timely rains in November, we were able to grow some winter grass.”

That provided some early grazing for the breeding stock. But when the dry summer hit, Cockrell put his drought management plan back into high gear. Timing was vital. “In a drought, timing of your management decisions is everything,” he says. “If you need to buy hay elsewhere or move cows, don’t hold back.  

“Those decisions must be made early. If not, that hay or pasture elsewhere may not be available. And if cows have lost condition, they won’t work in a breeding program.”

When searching for replacement females to purchase in 2011, Cockrell made sure they had the condition to breed, then have and sustain a calf. “I looked at a lot of cows,” he says. “I didn’t want to buy them because of their condition. Their body condition score (BCS) was in the 2 to 3 range. Their calves had been left on them too long, which resulted in the poor BCS at weaning.”

He says that if calves had been weaned in early summer at 400 lbs., cows for sale in August would likely still have some condition. “But if calves were left on cows until August (during the drought), the calves probably still weighed 400 and cows had lost BCS,” Cockrell says.

“If I bought a cow like that in August and she was to start carrying a calf 30 days later, I could not get the BCS back to 5 or 6 before the next breeding for a spring calf.”