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.”

Notching up nutrition

Cockrell says that following last year’s drought, the ranch’s supplement program was started earlier. “We began our supplement program about a month early,” he says. “We normally try to stockpile grass hay and don’t start feeding hay until December. But since none of the cows we purchased came in here fat, I had to start feeding hay and a 38 percent cottonseed cake the first of November to try to get their BCS up.”

The drought also showed Cockrell that not all Bermudas are the same. “We found that different varieties of Bermuda couldn’t handle the drought as well as others,” he says. “Coastal and Common (varieties) handled the drought and high temperatures better in our area. That may be different elsewhere. I’d advise other ranchers to check with their Extension office and view forage research results.”

In drought, it’s important to maintain a good fertilizer and weed control program to ensure grass growth when rain finally falls. “The root system of grass survives better and there is more forage available,” Cockrell says. “People who cut back on fertilizer but not on their stocking rates got into a lot of trouble last year.

“Their pregnancy rates were a lot lower.  We still stayed at 91 percent after 2011. Drought did not impact our calving rate. Lack of water was our biggest problem. In August and September of last year we rented an 8-inch pump and a 3,500-ft. collapsible hose to pump water from a small lake on the ranch.”

Meanwhile, he and his crew cleaned silt out of dry and shallow ponds to improve their ability to hold water. “We went into this year better off on our water situation,” Cockrell says.

He maintained a good animal health program, with input from suppliers, nutritionists and his veterinarian. And whether your herd is in the Midwest or the South, drought will nearly always impact animal health emphasize two Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc. Professional Services Veterinarians.

Dr. Travis Van Anne, Professional Service Veterinarian from Gering, Neb., an area also hit with drought, warns producers of potential breeding problems caused by deficiencies in Vitamin A, phosphorous, protein, energy and micronutrients. “If they don’t supplement pasture with some added protein, we won’t see pregnancy rates as high as we want,” he says.

“Phosphorous is a reproductive nutrient, which is available through distillers grain. But with the reduction of ethanol production and availability of the distillers grain byproducts, we may need to go back to a 12:12 mineral.”

Also, make sure corn, sorghum or cottonseed supplements are not contaminated with aflatoxin. “After the heat and drought, people may try to find a home for some contaminated corn,” he says. “Water sources must also be checked for salmonella or other contamination that can hurt cattle.”

He notes that ranchers are likely weaning earlier and that the calves have already experienced severe heat stress. “So they need to be preconditioning earlier,” he says.

“If calves had a shot of Pyramid® 5 + Presponse® SQ(for control of IBR, BVD Types I and II, PI3, BRSV and Mannheimia haemolytica) in April or May, they should be getting a second one in the fall, as well as a second clostridial.

“Cydectin®Pour-On should be considered to take care of internal and external parasites and for fly control. And remember, the number one reason to deworm is that parasites are an appetite suppressant. If intakes are down, so might be the immune system.”

Van Anne says calves headed to the feedyard should be on an excellent mineral program. “With the short grasses, a mineral containing some amino acid complexes should be used to help the calf build up its immune system,” he says. “Remember, if calves get sick, carcass characteristics are hurt, percent choice is reduced and pounds harvested will be less.”

Dr. Mac Devin, a Professional Services Veterinarian in Texas, says calves born during drought conditions should be monitored closely for health problems. “We’re seeing some nutritional impact due to the drought conditions,” he says, noting that dams carrying the calves likely faced heat stress and were stressed for protein and energy during the summer.

“Calves get two-thirds of their growth in the last three months before birth,” Devin says. “They may not have good quality colostrum at birth. And you need to have a good idea of their micronutrient status.

“Also, even if you have good forage, there is still a payback for preconditioning. Order buyers say they can’t get enough preconditioned calves.”

Van Anne adds that preconditioned calves provide a good image for the industry. “Dollars in the next person’s pocket will trickle down to the cow-calf producer,” he says.