— Drought means more than just limited grass, poisoned livestock.
Livestock auction markets are being flooded with cattle, in large part due to the worsening drought conditions in virtually all prominent cattle states, especially in the southern Plains states. Many cattlemen are already hauling cattle elsewhere and/or spending extra dollars to feed cattle early where grass is marginal to sparse. The USDA’s drought monitor shows conditions to be the worst in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Unfortunately, relief is not projected for the near future, leading cattlemen to make critical decisions. Although precipitation cannot be forecasted with 100 percent accuracy, ranchers can hedge with an effective drought plan.
Besides selling out and relocating cattle, industry leaders say there are alternatives and cattlemen need to have a plan in place now to prevent last minute decisions, which often whiplash into regret. In fact, in Arizona where drought has been persistent for the last several years, only 50 percent of the cattle population remains from 10 years ago, according to University of Arizona, livestock specialist Bob Kattnig.
More than sparse grass
When thinking of drought, the first thing often coming to mind is limited natural feed sources, which means less profit and more costs. Although this is a true and logical thought, according to cattle and range specialists, the problem far exceeds grass shortages. Drought may not only discourage grass growth, it also increases plant toxicity, creating a potential for poisoning livestock.
“Stressed pastures bring out toxic plant problems in several ways,” said Dave Sparks, food and animal health extension specialist in Oklahoma. “At these times, toxic plants become more prevalent. Many toxic plants are able to withstand the stress of overgrazing better than more palatable forage plants. As the stress on the pasture continues, decreased competition (from grass) means greater populations of toxic plants. Many of the toxic plants even become more toxic under stress conditions such as drought or overgrazing.”
He said drought conditions can also result in protein, energy, mineral and/or vitamin deficiencies, which escalate the problem due to increasing ruminants’ vulnerability to plant toxicity. Unfortunately, there are not just a few toxic plants to look out for during this summer’s drought. In fact, there are over 100 plants that could cause problems, including cockleburs, johnsonsgrass and milkweed.
Kattnig said cattle are currently eating toxic plants they wouldn’t normally eat due to limited feed sources. He said the most problematic plant in Arizona is burrow weed. Symptoms as a result of toxic plants can include diarrhea, abortion, birth defects, colic, nitrate poisoning, the inability to rise, the inability to eat or drink and many others. Sudden death can also occur.
To prevent drought-thriving toxic plants, Texas A&M range specialist Charles Hart and livestock specialist Bruce Carpenter said producers must first learn to identify the plants. From there, said the duo who has researched the topic for several years, producers need to implement effective grazing and livestock management practices and then take action to control the plants before they consume the grazing area.
Carpenter, located in Fort Stockton, TX, said he hasn’t seen any significant precipitation since October, aside from spotty rainfall. As a result, he is currently guiding producers through an array of alternatives, including protein and energy supplementing. He said when talking about feed alternatives, producers often think of hay, cubes and/or cottonseed hulls. However, he said these sources are not an economical avenue to pursue, encouraging producers to look elsewhere for feeds that are similar in nutrient value and content to the expensive options. For example, Carpenter recommends corn gluten as a cheap, readily available alternative, but warns producers of possible sulfur problems, suggesting caution with all alternative feeds. He said to always read labels before selecting a feed alternative.
He said cattle require a minimum of seven percent crude protein in their diets, just to keep the digestive system microbes alive and working on forage digestion. He said protein supplementation can actually stimulate forage intake and suggests having mineral available at all times.
Since bringing in actual supplemental feed on public grounds in Arizona is prohibited, Kattnig strongly recommends free choice protein supplements. He said it is best to select protein that is all natural, as problems are more likely to occur when urea is included.
Carpenter said higher density energy supplements can make up for short grass, but said large quantities of energy in any form for extended periods of time are often uneconomical.
“Protein should be first priority because energy, pound for pound, costs more,” Carpenter said.
In addition to feed supplementing, Kattnig said the other situation is water.
“In the places we have forage, we don’t have water,” said Kattnig. While protein and energy supplementing is not as labor intensive, “hauling water is both expensive and difficult.”
Another unpopular topic with producers is determining how thin cattle can get before they are too thin.
“Although some disagree, body conditioning can be allowed to drop to a score of three,” said Kattnig. “Producers should be more concerned with keeping the cattle alive. If she’s young and thin, but still alive, the asset still exists. When moisture finally comes, it will bring her profit potential back.”
Culling should be done now, according to both Carpenter and Kattnig. However, their culling strategies differ. They agree open and older broken mouth cows should be the first on the trailer. Next, however, Carpenter said cull yearling heifers, then 2-year-old heifers. Carpenter said the last thing to go should be good conditioned females ranging from 5 to 8 years of age.
Kattnig suggests selling calves after the broken mouthed cows, but in contrast, said keeping the yearlings and 2-year-old cows is wise.
“If you cull your young cows now, all of a sudden you have an old herd,” Kattnig said. “You must retain young cows. If the drought ends in four years and you have culled your young cows, all of a sudden you have a pasture full of 8- or 9-year-old cows. Then you are left with high replacement costs.”
He said another reason young cows should stay is genetics.
“If you continue to liquidate young females, you eliminate your herd’s hardiness. You eliminate your genetics consisting of cows adaptable to your environment. The herd’s grazing knowledge is gone,” said Kattnig. “Cow’s adapted to your grazing conditions know where the water is and know where the grass is and they go find it.”
Early weaning can be done several different ways, depending on the producer’s goals. Carpenter said producers who simply want to take stress off the cows to enhance body conditioning and are willing to accept lighter weight calves would be best served by weaning two months early.
However, he said producers wanting to get the calves off the cows in order to ensure breeding success should wean at 2 to 3 months of age.
“To do this, better have creep ready and a place to put them; if you don’t, it may not be worth it,” said Carpenter.
Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University animal scientist, said weaning at 2 months of age should be the last resort.
“When you are not willing to sell cows because you have spent a lifetime building the herd genetics the way you want them and there is no rain and fires keep spreading, then it may be the way to go,” said Selk. “Like I said, this is a last ditch resort, not the easiest.”
Kattnig said Arizona cattlemen seldom wean early.
“It would a good strategy if you have the facilities. Out here on public lands, there is nowhere to put them that lends itself well,” he said. “If they wean early, they have to sell them right off the cow, which may be an option.”
Kattnig, who is a Colorado native, said the strategies used in Arizona can also be used in other western states. He said “drought is drought,” and the same strategies can be applied throughout all regions. He said strategy usually depends on financial limitations.
“When you choose a strategy for dealing with drought, you need to look three to four years down the road to see what effect the decisions made now will have on capital in the future. Questions such as, ‘can you afford to buy replacements later,’ need to be answered,” said Kattnig. “The big challenge in drought seasons is figuring out a way to maintain capital.” — Mike Deering, WLJ Editor