One of the toughest situations to endure as a livestock grazier is a drought that seems to have no end in sight. It is humbling, frustrating, depressing and can bring on financial hardship. It seems that once your farm is in the drought area, all rains go around you or the moisture is inhaled by the dry air as it approaches. The weatherman mentions that it is another nice clear weekend with no rain in the forecast. It really can work on you mentally to have a huge rain cloud with lightning bolts busting out of the sky, accompanied by thunder shaking the ground and not have a drop of moisture hit the ground! We have no control over the weather, so we do not focus on the weather forecast. What I have learned to focus on is what I can control.
Our farm in central Missouri has been getting a lot of this particular treatment for the last two years. I want to cover some of the issues that drought brings on and how we are addressing them on our farm. Drought is normal and we need to manage for it. The worst thing we can do is hunker down and hope we get rain. Hope is not a strategy for surviving a prolonged drought. Calculating animal days of forage, water, stocking rates, culling, these topics will keep you ranching.
Beginning in late June of 2011 the rain stopped. From late June of 2011 to March of 2012 we have received 5” of rain. Our normal average yearly rainfall is 38”. So when people ask me what our average rainfall is in north central Missouri I reply, “It depends on what year it is and what you call normal”. In 2010 we had 70” of rain. If we add our present 5” to the 70” of 2010 rainfall, by golly we come up with 37.5” of rainfall for the average of the last two years.
The spring of 2011 started great, we had great rains every week which had all the pond spillways overflowing. It took a great deal of grazing management to keep the mob of cattle from pugging our clay base pastures. Being 100% committed to grazing, even in the spring mud season, demands very close monitoring of pastures. I remember there was one day that I mentioned that I wished it would stop raining for a couple days. Be careful of what you wish for. I promised myself later last summer that I would never wish for it to stop raining again. We would like to see some of those soggy pastures again
Once the rains stopped, the heat we saw in July and August was almost unbearable. It would reach the upper 90’s and topped 100 degrees almost every day. The humidity was very brutal; you simply could not breathe very well if you were exerting yourself in any way. We started moving our cattle mob before it got light and right at dusk. The cattle sure seemed to appreciate it. This allowed our cattle to graze at the coolest times of the day which helped with their animal performance.
First Year Attitude Adjustment
One thing that helped our own attitude was that Jan and I took off for South Africa for three weeks of vacation. We left two well trained interns in charge of the farm. Farmers get in this framework of thinking that we are the only ones that can effectively manage our farms. This kind of thinking makes you a slave to your farm; you must get away and a long drawn out drought is the ideal time.
We actually went from sweltering summer heat in the Midwest to South Africa’s beautiful perfect winter weather. What a switch that was. Jan and I actually had a snow ball fight on Ian Mitchells Innes ranch one morning. Folks in South Africa had not seen a snow like this in 10 years, they got 2” and all highways were immediately closed. What a beautiful country, that is a story for another time. Just get away from your farm for a while. It will help your mental attitude and you come back with a refreshed outlook and make better decisions.
Year One Animal Management – Don’t Buy Hay
Before we left for South Africa, we immediately combined the two herds of cattle into one mob. We had a grass finishing herd and the cow/calf yearling heifer mob that now made one large mob. Now we had increased our density by combining both herds and no longer had two herds grazing at two different spots on our farms.
I am convinced that combining your multiple herds is one of the most powerful tools that you can use in our grazing management when in a drought. Our next tool that we focused on was reducing the number of animals that we were grazing. We processed every grass-fed beef that was finished that we had orders for. Any beef or sheep that we could find flaws in were immediately sorted out. If they were not performing up to my expectations, we sold them.
Sheep and cattle prices were very good because we sold early in the drought, so the pain of culling was not bad. Our cow herd and sheep flock got prettier each month as well! I will admit it got tougher to cull each month, because the lower quality animals were gone. We took a tough situation of having limited forage, no re-growth and turned it into a cash positive situation by selling animals.
The alternative response would have been to buy hay. This response would have taken money out of our pocket to buy the hay. But worse yet, we did not know when the drought would end. Any time you make the fatal flaw of feeding through a drought, the consequences are not good. In most cases the purchased feed will exceed the value of the livestock that you are feeding. You are putting the future of your farm and your family resources at risk.
It is tough to sell animals that you have worked on improving for many years. Something that is even tougher than selling your animals is feeding them purchased hay through a drought that you don’t know when it will end. Don’t get emotional about your livestock, sell them. You can always buy more livestock after the drought is over with the money that you have in your savings account from the animals that you sold during the drought. If you try and keep all your animals through the drought, you may lose the farm.
Your purchased livestock may not be the quality of what you previously owned. That can be fixed with time and the selection of animals that perform best in your environment. By keeping your base cow herd and a few good bulls, your replacements will be heavily influenced by your retained herd bull genetics. You will have the luxury of paying cash for your replacement livestock when the drought ends, because you did not burn all your savings up on purchased hay. This keeps you from not going into debt restocking your farm.
Simply hoping for the drought to end is not a management tool to use. Attack it head on and attack it early. The earlier you start to destock, the less animals you will have to sell. You are preserving precious forage for the remaining animals on your farm. By combining the two different mobs, processing all finished beeves and culling inferior animals, this took a lot of grazing pressure off our pastures that were no longer growing by the end of August. Our recovery period between grazings increased from 60 days to 150 days. This drastically reduced our hay feeding bill last winter.
Destocking Allows Pastures to Take Advantage of Minimal Precip
The rain we did get last year came in late November and December. By having a late killing frost date last fall, our pastures actually had a chance to grow some very high quality fescue winter stockpile once the rain came. On a normal year our first killing frost comes around the middle of October. Three of the 5” of rain came in November and December 2011. The other 2” came in January 2012. Those 3” of rain actually allowed us to grow about 40% of the amount of winter stockpile that we normally grow. We were very thankful for the stockpile growth that we got due to the late killing frosts.
I am convinced that the only reason we grew any late stockpile in the severe drought was due to our previous management. The last five years of building up huge amounts of carbon in the soil with mob grazing and keeping an effective working litter bank on the soil surface paid huge dividends. The plants were not severely stressed when we finally got our precious 3” of rain in the late fall. Every drop of rain was trapped and held in place by the litter bank. There was no bare soil exposed to encourage runoff.
We have noticed with pastures where there is no grazing management focused on trampling forage, the litter bank is missing. These particular farms really suffer during a drought, the rain simply runs off. It does not matter how much rain you get if you cannot trap it on your farm. When plants are severely grazed off during a prolonged drought it’s usually because the owner did not act soon enough to destock. There is nothing wrong with hoping or praying for a rain, but you also need to be proactive and implement a plan. Once you have grazed all your paddocks on the farm with the first grazing rotation in a major drought, it is too late to plan.
Heading Into Year Two
The winter of 2012 was very dry as well, no snow or rain. I have never encountered a winter where basically we received no moisture or cold weather. There was never any mud the entire winter, just dry pastures. It was balmy all winter long which did help on daily cow maintenance. This saved us a ton of forage because the cow body temperatures were not challenged by any cold weather. The cows required less forage to stay warm.
Finally in March we received enough rain to green up the plants and soak the top 4 inches of surface soil. The soil below 4 inches was barren of moisture left from the 2011 drought. We also got a couple rains in April that encouraged our grass to shoot up to around 16 inches. The subsoil moisture never had an opportunity to get recharged with moisture. In mid May the water spigots shut off and the heat returned. Never have we seen the extreme heat that was witnessed in early May.
By June 1st, I knew we were in trouble with our pasture re-growth. The temperatures had hovered around 100F for 20 days of May with zero moisture. There was re-growth taking place on our farms after being grazed, but it was significantly slower. Usually in June our plants build tons of forage for our animals for the coming summer season. This particular June seemed to feel more like our typical brutal hot August weather. Growing conditions were disappearing quickly.
Year Two Herd Management
I decided to implement our drought plan immediately. I was not going to wait on the possibility of when the next rain might come. We combined our two herds into one mob to concentrate the animals into one area. This kept our animals from eating at two spots at the same time and gave us much more control over our recovery periods. Next we treated every bite of grass that we had grown on our farms like it was our last. We sold enough animals to ensure that we had 180 days of forage left in front of us to feed our remaining animals in case it did not rain.
First we sold all two year old steers to a fellow up north that had been getting rain. These steers were closing in on 900 lbs and were doing well on the high energy forage in front of them. Next we sold all of our yearling steers from last season. This took a huge amount of grazing pressure off our farms. Next we culled older cows. The yearling heifers and bred heifers were also sorted out and sold to folks wanting to start their own grass genetic herds. We were left with 1/3rd of our animals that we started the spring with.
Grazing Management for Drought Year Two
The 2012 drought continued with unrelenting daily temperatures hovering over 100 F every day. By having all of our remaining animals in one mob, this allowed us to concentrate our animals on one section of our farms. We went to daily moves with temporary poly reels. This gave us maximum control over our remaining precious forage to meter out to the remaining herd. We focused on making sure that the mob of cattle only grazed the upper parts of the plant. With each grazing pass, we wanted to ensure that we left at least one half of the plant to cover the ground surface from the baking sun. This longer residual would also aid us in plant recovery assuming we got a rain in the future. The taller plants left would also help slow down the winds that were trying to turn our pastures into barren deserts.
It was really surprising how little of the high quality grass the cattle ate each day. We check our cattle daily for gut fill on the left side of each animal as it passes through into the new fresh grass strip. If you limited the animals, there will be an area in front of the hip bone that is sunken in. These cattle were not limited and were putting weight on. Their calves were packing on tremendous weight by getting milk and high energy plant tips. We also monitor the daily manure pats to ensure the cattle rumens are performing correctly.
If the manure pats get to runny, that is a red flag to us to change our paddock size which effects animal selection. Runny pats are an indicator that you are making the cow graze too low. You are limiting their selection of quality plants. Keep them on the top portions of the plants and the manure pats will be the consistency of a pumpkin pie. The manure pat should have wrinkled swirls building up the sides of the pat. For a nice finishing touch, the pat needs a small pond located in the middle of it. Take your foot and spread the manure pat open, it should have a nice pleasant smell to it. For you diehards, you do not have to taste it!
If there is anything good that comes with a drought it is the concentration of minerals and nutrients in the plant leaves. With the limited moisture the plants become very nutrient dense. With very wet summers, the grasses are much more washy and the cattle performance is not as good as dry years. With the less nutrient dense grass the cattle have to eat more of it and their performance will not be as good. The drought grass still amazes me how good cattle can perform by grazing it in comparison to normal summer grass that is not as nutrient dense.
This nutrient dense grass message was driven home in my brain years ago. We took in some custom grazed cows from out of the arid west and brought them to wet conditions on Missouri fescue. Their rumens were adapted to nutrient dense western grasses and they were immediately switched to washy fescue pastures. Their rumens were not big enough to hold enough of the fescue to keep their system functioning. The bugs in the rumen were not able to break down the fescue, they were adapted to the nutrient dense western grasses.
Year Two Attitude Adjustment
In July, Jan and I left for New Zealand for one month. New Zealand was always a place that we wanted to visit. Before we left, we had a laid out grazing plan for the interns to implement. We had placed the mob on our largest farm. This ensured there would be no cattle mob drives up public roads to the next farm while we were gone. Everything had finished calving. The sheep flock had all ram lambs and older rams removed from flock in the middle of July to prevent winter lambing.
Prepping Interns to Manage Without Us
Our interns were very well trained by now on what to do on the farms. Jake our intern from St. Paul, Minnesota had signed on for a year, which started in January. He was very comfortable with our grazing practices. Jake had learned all the daily monitoring of livestock and pasture conditions. Jake has already signed on with Todd Churchill of Thousand Hills Cattle Company in Minnesota as a grazing manager when his internship ends here this December.
Meg our intern from Buffalo, NY had been with us since June. She picked up the grazing skills and animal health monitoring very quickly. They both have bright futures as graziers. Jake is very alert with what the pasture conditions are with each grazing. He is also a very physical specimen, has the strength to do any job. I have not seen a calf that he can’t catch. Meg can walk through a mob and identify any animal that is not performing. She can give a pretty accurate reason why the animal is not performing. She also knows what to give the animal to treat it. So Jake catches it, and Meg administers the treatment. Meg can also pregnancy test cows. Jake has a degree in English, Meg has a degree in Animal Science. They are both very sharp young adults that complement each other quite well in their skills.
We felt very confident leaving the farm in their hands. Before we left I sit down with Jake and Meg for a brainstorming session. We made out a check list of things that had to be checked daily. Number one on that list was livestock access to quality water every single day. When the cattle were moved daily, the water tank had to be physically inspected to ensure that it was full and functioning properly. In these brutal summer temperatures, one day without water could kill a lot of animals. You can short a cow on forage for a day and it will not kill her, but water is another issue. They also were schooled on making sure the animals had shade if temperatures reached into the 100’s. I know there are diehards that feel that cows do not need shade, but I sure appreciate a tree when it is 100 degrees!
I coached our interns on managing the farm like they owned it and their livelihood depended on it. As long as they had the mindset that the farm was theirs, this built trust in their actions of managing it. It was also a great learning opportunity for both of them. I was not going to be around to tell them what to do. They had to decide what needed to be done if anything went wrong. This month of my absence was probably the best thing that they could have had happen to them in their internship program. It sure gave them confidence that they could run a grazing operation on their own.
They did a great job of managing the farms while we were gone. They did not lose any animals to the heat and the cow/calf mob actually had put on weight while we were gone. Jake and Meg did an excellent job of monitoring the graze periods and paddock size to ensure animal performance. I could immediately sense a much higher level of confidence in them when we returned. It is a wonderful feeling to see young folks with passion gain wealth in their grazing skills when given the opportunity to prove themselves.
It was great to get away from the drought for a month. New Zealand was just exiting winter and starting spring. The cooler temperatures were sure welcome after being subjected to the 100F everyday in the Midwest. Landscapes of green grass everywhere was soul healing as well. New Zealand is a beautiful country to visit and travel through; folks are as friendly as ever. We saw more rain in New Zealand in two weeks than we have seen in Missouri for two years! Folks were complaining about it raining too much. I told them to be careful about what they wished for. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip in New Zealand, came back refreshed and rejuvenated.
Finishing the 2012 Summer
We reached the end of August with no rain expected until the end of October. The temperatures fell out of the 100’s which was a plus. At this stage we had gone 110 days without any rain and the experts were calling Missouri the epicenter of the drought. Do to our planning and the way we had managed our pastures and herd, we still had 120 days of grown forage in front of us that had not had its first grazing since recovering from the spring grazing. Meanwhile, most folks in our area had mechanically mowed off their pastures to remove the seed heads in June. It was a very bad management decision that cost them their pastures. Those pastures today look like deserts; nothing is left but bare ground. They did accomplish their goal of not having any seed heads.
I will repeat once again, that by focusing on growing taller plants in the early spring before grazing them, you will be able to endure a drought. Armed with this stronger forage base, you must monitor your stocking rate at the first hint of drought. Act early and get rid of any animals that can be marketed. Focus on leaving as much forage as possible in each grazing pass to protect your soils. It will rain again and when it does, your farm will catch and hold the water. You will be rewarded with faster grass re-growth from dormancy simply because you did not graze off the pastures to a parking lot. Don’t forget to take some time away from your farm during the drought to relax and get re-energized.
We want you to make it successfully through all sorts of conditions, including dry seasons and drought, so On Pasture will be sharing more examples like this from farmers and ranchers for you to draw on.