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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.

Reducing 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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