Dry times are trying times for cattle producers
Think rationally, not emotionally, when weighing options to manage forage shortages
For much of MFA’s trade territory, the past 12 months have been a challenging time for livestock operations, to say the least. Drought has kept its hold on our Kansas producers and spread and intensified in Missouri. Many producers had their fingers crossed that spring would give us the moisture needed to recharge the ground. Instead, what we got was a very cool, dry spring. By the time it finally warmed up and some rain did arrive, most forages were already in survival mode.
The dry conditions have exacerbated nutrient deficiencies in pastures and hay fields. The farmers who hustled and applied their fertilizer this spring were helpless as they watched it sit and not go to work. For those who tried to combat high fertilizer costs last year by cutting back normal rates or simply not applying any nutrients have seen the biggest reduction this year. Many dedicated hayfields still had cattle grazing them well into May, telling me that those producers were out of hay and those fields were their last option. So far this summer, hay harvest is resulting in less than half of normal production, and I would dare say most are one-third of normal. The hay that made it into a bale has few leaves and lots of stems.
Faced with these challenges, what’s in store for livestock producers this summer and fall? What options do they have? What can be done to help get through the unknown?
When I was approached to write about the current situation many livestock producers are experiencing, I was also asked to share how I help make decisions for my own cattle operation that I run with my family partners. I had to give some thought about how we do that. For us, we tend to look at return on investment, considering what the payback will be for the actions we take. We also use logic and focus on the need while taking emotion out of the decision-making process. This can be hard to do, but, in most cases, produces a better outcome.
Last summer on our family farm, when discussing what we needed to do stretch, find or produce more forages for the winter, there were two obvious options: Either buy more hay or fertilize for fall stockpiling. For one group of cows, we had already bought the hay we needed to get them through an average winter with normal fall pasture growth. After some discussions, we felt that we had better do more to protect ourselves if average rains and improved growing conditions didn’t come. We evaluated and calculated how each option would benefit our operation and how much it would cost. In the end, we went with fall fertilizer.
We applied a 25-34-40 analysis in the middle of August. A grand total of 2.8 inches of rain fell on those pastures before a killing frost stopped growth. The stockpiled pastures took those cows almost to the end of January before we began to feed hay. This was a huge success. We were able to feed those cows a lot more efficiently while also realizing “backside benefits” (a phrase I heard from MFA Conservation Grazing Specialist Landry Jones). Those benefits included less wear and tear on equipment, reduced fuel and better herd health. The big one for me was more time doing other things.
During our deliberations, I kept thinking that spending the money on hay that was available and having it sitting in our bale lot would make me feel better. In the end, it would have cost us a lot more money, and we would have never realized the other benefits. By starting earlier with the decision-making process, we had time to weigh the options and to sleep on it. It also allowed us to implement the plan sooner and apply fertilizer much earlier than normal, which helped extend the growing days for our pastures.
I obviously cannot tell you when our normal rain patterns will return, but what I can tell you is that sitting down now and analyzing your situation is a great start. Determine your options. Is there hay available, or do you need to fall fertilize? Look at the cost of fertilizer and the asking price for hay. Currently, fertilizing for more pastures seems to be a better buy, even with limited rain. Estimate the cost of activities associated with hay. Will there be benefits of not baling, hauling and feeding hay? All these activities play into the cost of doing business.
Another option to consider—and many cringe at the idea—is whether you need to reduce the herd. Will selling now before others flood the market be a better option? Remember to think rationally.
The takeaway from this article is not what I did to help get our herd through last winter or what I am going to do going forward but to encourage you to have an early plan based on good business decisions and not emotion. Stick with that plan to achieve the goal. Get help and advice from your MFA key account manager, precision specialist or location manager. Any one of them would love to get together with you to help you get through these dry times.
CLICK HERE to read more articles from this August/September 2023 issue of Today's Farmer Magazine.
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