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Young Hereford heifers being backgrounded on drylot settings for a Kansas State University study in 2007.

Current drought conditions across many parts of the Great Plains are prompting cattle producers to consider options for reducing stocking rates on rangeland and pasture as we look forward to this spring and summer. There are three main options to reduce stocking rates: supplement/substitute feed; ship cattle to non-drought areas; and sell cattle.

Supplement/substitute feed

Feeding cattle on pasture can be an option to reduce the amount of forage that cattle are grazing. This option is likely best suited for use on perennial-planted pastures where non-native species such as smooth brome, orchard grass, fescue and wheatgrass varieties have been established. These species tend to be more resilient should overgrazing occur.

Research conducted by the University of Nebraska at the Agricultural Research and Development Center has shown that feeding a mixture of modified wet distillers grains and ground cornstalks in a 30/70 ratio (dry matter basis) replaced grazed grass on approximately a 1:1 basis. In this study, cow-calf pairs were delivered 15.7 lbs. of dry matter of the feed mixture daily. Feeding high levels of low-quality forage, (ground cornstalks) with the modified distillers grains is necessary to reduce intake of grass.

Drylot feeding of cow-calf pairs, replacement heifers or yearlings is another option to replace grazed forage. Removing cattle from drought stressed rangelands and pasture will help to minimize damage to grass plants, allowing full recovery more quickly when the drought breaks.

Several long-term research studies have been conducted on drylot feeding of cow-calf pairs by the University of Nebraska.

Ship cattle elsewhere

Often when one part of the country is experiencing drought conditions, there are other parts of the country that are not. Currently many states to the south and east of Nebraska are not experiencing drought conditions at the same level as Nebraska. When considering shipping of cattle to other locations for grazing, carefully take into account all of the factors involved. Risks associated with cattle performance, death loss and biosecurity for breeding cattle returning to the operation should be evaluated.

Sell cattle

There are several factors that producers should consider when deciding which cattle to retain and which cattle to sell. Here are a few to consider:

• What are the plans and the outlook for the business?

• Which enterprises in the operation have been profitable in the last several years?

• How would selling cattle impact the cost structure of the business?

• Is now a time to make changes to the enterprises that make up the operation?

• Within the herd, what age groups and classes of cattle will likely depreciate the most over the next two to four years? Which ones are most likely to appreciate in value?

• What age groups of females retained now would best position the operation to take advantage of anticipated higher calf prices when the drought breaks?

• What are the tax implications for selling cattle due to drought conditions and what opportunities may that provide? 

Under drought conditions, selling breeding cattle early usually will result in higher prices being received than waiting until many other producers are marketing cattle also. Strategically thinking through which cattle to keep and which ones to sell can help producers position themselves to make the best of a challenging situation. — Aaron Berger, Nebraska Extension beef educator

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