Much of western Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas and the Texas Panhandle are suffering through D4 exceptional drought, smack dab of the critical period when summer forage growth begins in earnest.
Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist, warns that if normal forage growth is absent or significantly delayed, cattle producers in areas of D4 or D3 drought will face some critical decisions rather quickly in the next few weeks.
“Cattle producers need to develop drought management plans now to survive in the face of a potentially extended drought that threatens the entire growing season,” he said.
As of this writing, the Drought Monitor shows rapid expansion of the exceptional D4 drought area to about 38 million acres, with another 126 million acres suffering through extreme D3 drought conditions.
“Some areas have gotten rain recently, but not enough to reduce their levels of drought without further moisture,” said Al Sutherland, OSU Cooperative Extension weather systems expert with the Oklahoma Mesonet.
One strategy is simply to hunker down, try to hold on to everything and acquire enough feed resources to, as Peel said, “try and skimp animals through the drought.”
There are several risks to this strategy: The “get by” strategy of managing cows through a drought may simply postpone drought costs into future years by negatively affecting reproductive performance and future production.
"It is important not to retain more animals than an agricultural operation can care for properly," Peel said.
Another risk is the potential to hold animals but incur so much cost that the financial health of the business is compromised for a long period, or worse still, the economic survivability of the business is jeopardized.
Finally, abusing forage resources during a drought can lead to damage that requires years from which to recover. This implies reduced levels of future production to allow time for the land and forage to heal after severe use.
“A comprehensive, detailed plan will help remove as much emotion as possible and make it easier for producers to make tough, timely decisions,” Peel said. “This is important not only for the farm or ranch enterprise itself but for the short- and long-term mental and physical health of the producer and others involved.”
In short, the sooner a producer can evaluate and inventory an operation’s available resources, the more likely it will be for the farm or ranch manager to make decisions as opposed to having decisions forced on him or her.
For example: Water, in some cases, will provide a harder deadline than feed. Producers relying on surface water must calculate available water supplies and use that to determine how to allocate limited water over time. Additionally, it is important to evaluate forage and feed resources currently available, including standing forage, hay and other feed resources.
“The drought management plan should be based on that amount of feed availability and assume no or little new forage production,” Peel said. “Also very critical, but often overlooked, is the need to evaluate financial resources and realistic limits on additional costs.”
At a minimum, drought results in some increase in costs. A critical component of the drought management plan is when to switch from “hunker down” to an active plan that involves revising production activities. This might include different production systems such as dry lot production of some cattle or relocating cattle to another region.
When animal numbers can no longer be maintained it is important to remember that liquidation is not an all or nothing proposition.
“Make a priority list of what animals to sell and when that decision must be implemented," Peel said. "It may be helpful to determine the last core of animals that would be maintained prior to total liquidation and then work backwards to figure out what order of liquidation would get to that point.”
Peel added it is essential to have action dates.
“Dates can be revised as needed if conditions change but not having dates results in emotional anguish and the temptation to ‘hang on for a few more days’ that often results in more severe long-term consequences,” he said.
Making things more challenging is the fact nobody ever knows exactly how long a drought will last. Still, whether it is a few weeks, a few months or possibly many months, it is important not only to figure out how to survive the drought, but to manage for the post-drought period during the drought.
“At the end, business survival is an economic question, not a just a matter of how many cattle we can hold onto for another two weeks, month whatever,” Peel said.
Oklahoma is the nation’s fifth-leading producer of cattle and calves, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data.
The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is one of two state agencies administered by OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.