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HomeGrazing ManagementMaking Good Destocking Decisions in Drought

Making Good Destocking Decisions in Drought

Cattle in Boulder County, Colorado graze a dry pasture.
Cattle in Boulder County, Colorado in 2012

What do you do if it doesn’t rain so the grass doesn’t grow? Your livestock are grazing along, not a worry in the world, because it’s your job to figure out what comes next.  Prices are still up, and you could reduce your herd.  But you’ve spent years, maybe even a lifetime putting a herd together that fits you and the environment you work in.  As Lynn Myers, a Nebraska rancher who faced this scenario, says, destocking part of the herd is “like losing one of the family.”  How will you decide what to do?

Here are some suggestions for doing that to help you be as successful as you can be in times of drought.

Step One:  Look at your herd and divide the animals into three groups on paper.

• Group A is made up of your most profitable cows and yearling heifers that have a lot of potential value.
• Group B includes your replacement heifers and steers that need a few more pounds so they can hit a good market niche.
• Group C is all the remaining animals that could be sold tomorrow if forage gets short:  early weaned calves, yearling steers, older cows and cows with poorer genetics.

The earlier you put this list together, the more time you have to think and reflect. When you’re stressed about what’s happening in pasture, you may not have time to think, or you may not think as clearly.  Your plan can prevent knee-jerk reactions you may regret later.

Should the time come that you need to begin removing animals from pasture, you’ve already thought through the very first cattle to take off.  Of course, you don’t need to send all the animals in any group to market.  The amount of destocking you do depends on your monitoring of the forage you have in your pastures.  You might find that you only need to ship out a percentage.  Then, once you’ve sent that first group to market, repeat step one again, dividing the remaining animals into Groups A, B, and C.  This ensures that you’re sending off those animals you can most afford to remove from your herd.  As Greg Judy says, your herd will get prettier and prettier as drought goes on.

Take care of the land. The land will take care of the cattle, and the cattle will take care of you. Lynn Meyers, Nebraska RancherReducing your herd is a hard thing to face but drought may not give you an alternative.  If you plan ahead, you’ll have a better shot at doing it in a way that ensures your sustainability and profitability.

This article was drawn from a webinar sponsored by Dr. Cody Knutson of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Thanks to Dewayne Rice, Area Rangeland Management Specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Lincoln, Kansas, for breaking down the destocking process for us.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.


  1. I learned a long time ago the never have more than 60% of my herd in cows and their progeny, with the balance as traders. As it dries, not uncommon in Australia, get rid of the traders first, then follow Greg’s formula, always remembering to match your stocking rate to your decreasing crrying capacity.

    When it comes time to restock, remember it doesn’t rain grass, this winter we had 2 inches in May but nothing even started to grow until a further good rain event in June. The market will react sharply at first and by the time it has settled you will find that replacement stock are better value.

  2. Drought will hit everyone in the cattle business, sooner or later. In some areas drought is only a year long. In other areas it can be multiple years.

    A good friend in the latter has developed a program that will keep more females during drought. With the loss of forage growth, the first to go are big cows. They eat too much. Second are steers. They are expendable. Third are the mature cows, they eat too much. Depending on severity of drought, this can be spread out over a couple years.

    He keeps two and three year old heifers and all heifer calves. They do not eat as much and if the genetics of the herd are improving, these are the prime cattle to save. Another reason to sell steers and keep heifers is because a steer only grows. A heifer gives you a calf as she grows. She gains in value, while eating less than a cow who may be decreasing in value as she ages.

    Two heifers can be run on the forage of one cow. This helps to keep numbers up for when the rains come back.

  3. When you get in a drought, treat every blade of grass on your farm like it is your last. The sooner you de-stock the bottom lower quality animals from your herd, the less animals you may have to sell. One big mistake that I see folks make is they try and feed purchased hay through a drought. This is a recipe for financial disaster, you may end up with more money in your livestock than what they are worth. You simply do not know when the drought is going to end.
    Another mistake folks make is to open the gates and let them have the whole farm, now your really in trouble. Your whole farm has been overgrazed, recovery will be very slow when the rains return.

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