Drought Forcing Tough Decisions for High Plains Cattlemen

Drought Forcing Tough Decisions for High Plains Cattlemen

MANHATTAN, Kan. - For cattle producers in the High Plains, making money this year has placed them between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Some have little choice but to sell some - or even all - of their cow herd. Those who keep their herds likely will be paying more to feed the animals because drought in much of the region continues to keep pastures from growing much-needed grass and has severely shortened the supply of on-farm forages.

In western Kansas, many farmers have seen less than three inches of moisture since January, said state climatologist Mary Knapp. On average between January and July, the National Weather Service reports that Kansas, northwest division receives 11.88 inches of precipitation, but this year the region has received just 5.48 inches, making it the second driest year since 1895.

Rain in Colby over the weekend - which totaled 1.30 inches and flooded many of that city's streets - "hasn't improved conditions much" Knapp said. Even with the downpour, Colby is well short of the 3.95 inches that the city normally gets in July.

The hope that crops used for forages will stage even a partial late-season recovery are iffy. Knapp said the outlook for precipitation through Aug. 1 is above normal for the eastern two-thirds of the state, and equal chances for the west.

"Longer term," she said, "the August to October outlook is for equal chances on temperatures, and equal chances on moisture except for extreme northwest Kansas where there is a chance for above normal precipitation."

That outlook has spurred ranchers' pessimism toward not having enough forage to feed hungry cows - not just this summer and fall, but especially in the coming winter.

"The best decision," says Kansas State University livestock marketing economist Rodney Jones, "may be to reduce the size of the cow herd and perhaps get back into the business at a later time.

"That's not an easy thing for me to say. It's an even more difficult thing for someone who's sitting out there looking at a cow herd that they've spent years and years putting together."

Twig Marston, a cow-calf specialist with K-State Research and Extension, says northwest Kansas' rain deficits are especially troubling because that's an area where he says "we have a large number of cows."

In western Kansas, he adds, ";there are no standing forages to speak of. As you go further east, they have begun deteriorating" in the past few weeks.

"We know that we are going to run out of forages [in western Kansas]," said Marston, noting that Kansas Extension agents have been working with ranchers since early May to lower their stocking rates in pastures. "Even if we get back to normal rainfall, we can't make up for that lost forage production of the native grass pastures we have out there."

Marston suggests three options for producers:

* Extend forage supplies by making feed substitutes available, "putting something out there that cows can eat, [then] balance their diets along with the standing forage," he said;

* Utilize the forage available and move the herd into a drylot feeding program;

* Purchase concentrate-based diets, co-products or by-products with a starchy grain source, such as wheat or grain sorghum.

The latter option can be tricky, especially because the prices of some popular by-products - such as wheat middlings and cotton hulls - have skyrocketed recently, Jones said.

"The question is can we afford to drive those costs up that much," he said.

In Kansas, the average cow-calf producer spends $250 to $275 per year to feed one cow. With the current high cost of alternative feeds, Jones said that expense will easily be at least $300 per cow, and possibly as high as $350.

"I can think of very few cow-calf producers who can stand that," he said.

But whether to sell some or all of a herd to balance costs still is based on decisions unique to each producer. As one guideline, feed costs normally should not be higher than 65 percent of a cow-calf producer's total operating costs.

"One of the strategies we have to consider before reducing cow numbers is the overall efficiency of the farming and ranching operation," Marston said. "When feed costs reach 70-80 percent of operating costs, then that's out of line."

Marston adds that the decision to cull part of a cow herd should be based on the production potential of the herd. For example, if the replacement cows offer the most profit potential for the future, then those should be kept. In other herds, it's possible that the older cows should be kept in favor of preserving the herd's genetics.

"Every cow herd is going to be different," Marston said. "We need to look at those and apply the limited resources we have available to make the most amount of money and retain what we need to be able to rebuild in the future."

Jones and Marston said that producers seeking help in making sound economic and herd management decisions can contact their local Extension agent.


Cutting Back on the Bull(s)

MANHATTAN, Kan. - Cow-calf producers whose best chance to make money this year includes culling cow herds also will need to cut back bull numbers proportionally, said Twig Marston, a cow-calf specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

As a guideline, he says, for every 20 cows that will be culled, a producer should reduce their herd by one bull.

"Kansas is blessed with a lot of good genetics, so bulls will be available for us to replenish when we need to," Marston said. When culling a cow herd, "make a good guess of what [number of bulls] you are going to need. Hang on to the best, get rid of the rest."

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