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Drought conditions underscoring importance of wintertime agricultural planning

Monday, January 29, 2018

Expanding drought combined with decreasing hay stocks should be a sign of cattle producers to give extra thought to potential management implications during the coming weeks.

The latest Drought Monitor as of this writing shows 33 percent of the country is in some form of drought, with the D1 percentage being the largest since October 2015. Another 28 percent of the United States is abnormally dry.

“Combine that with the fact total U.S. hay production in 2017 was down 2.6 percent year-over-year, plus total hay stocks on Dec. 1, 2017 were down 10 percent compared to one year ago,” said Nathan Anderson, Payne County Extension director and agricultural educator. “That is a worrisome combination.”

In Oklahoma, 100 percent of the state is abnormally dry – D0 or worse – with 84 percent of the state in some form of drought, D1 or worse. The bulk of the drought is D1 Moderate at 36 percent of the state. D2 Severe also accounts for 36 percent with D3 Extreme totaling 12 percent. There is currently no D4 Exceptional drought.

Oklahoma hay stocks as of Dec. 1, 2017 were down 15.8 percent year over year despite a 2.7 percent increase in total hay production in the state compared to 2016.

“Hay stocks are down in the region with decreased Dec. 1 hay stocks reported in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas,” said Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist. “New Mexico hay stocks were unchanged and Colorado reported a 6.1 percent year-over-year increase.”

However, Peel cautioned, combined hay stocks in Oklahoma and all states that border Oklahoma were down 15.7 percent on Dec. 1, 2017.

“These seven states accounted for 49 percent of the year-over-year decrease in Dec. 1 U.S. hay stocks,” he said. “Recent winter storms and extended cold weather have accelerated hay use in the region and have no doubt further drawn down hay stocks since that time.”

One immediate problem is the lack of growth of winter wheat and other cool-season forages and the generally poor and deteriorating condition of those pastures.

“Some cattle have already been removed from pastures and more early marketings are likely in the coming weeks,” Peel said. “Producers should make alternative plans for management and marketing of cattle currently grazing winter pasture. In situations where wheat has not been grazed, contingency plans for using whatever forages are available may be needed if drought conditions persist and worsen.”

Another immediate problem is the high wildfire threat that may persist for several more weeks. Although producers have limited ability to avoid wildfire threats, Anderson said any possible preparedness is a good idea.

“Enhanced daily vigilance may help catch wildfires more quickly,” he said. “Have any available equipment that can be used to fight fire available and ready for rapid deployment. In some cases plowing fire breaks around structures and hay piles may help reduce damage in the event of a wildfire.”

Possible Futures Planned For Now

Thinking farther down the road, Extension agricultural educators and specialists with OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources’ recommend producers plan now for the possibility that current drought conditions get worse in the coming weeks.

“It’s important to assess forage supplies and develop management and marketing plans in case drought conditions persist into spring,” Anderson said. “We know from bitter experience in 2011 how quickly devastating an early-onset drought can be.”

Anderson and Peel said drought contingency planning is like insurance: “You hope you do not need it but you cannot afford not to have it.” Producers who wait until a problem presents itself may find available alternatives will be limited. Good records and visible identification can ease the pain of a disaster.

“The potential for ice storms, thunderstorms, tornadoes and wildfire is always a threat, typically hitting someone somewhere,” Anderson said. “Cleaning up after a severe storm or wildfire is difficult enough. Losing valuable cattle brings additional financial hardship to the situation.”

Cattle loss can occur in several scenarios. Livestock may be killed, lost or even stolen during a stormy situation. Branding today is still the most recognized and accepted means of indicating ownership of cattle in North America. Make use of the practice.

“Eventually, other methods such as electronic chipping may become the standard for identification, but until this procedure becomes a more economical and practical alternative, producers should utilize the time-tested, permanent and universal method of branding,” Anderson said.

State registration of a livestock brand is not required by law in Oklahoma. However, recorded brands take precedence over similar unrecorded brands when questions of ownership arise, making registration a good idea.

“Registered brands are prima facie evidence of ownership in a court of law,” Anderson said.

Brands are recorded by The Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association. For more information, contact the OCA by phone at 405-235-4391 or online at A brand is defined as a permanent mark not less than three inches in length or diameter and burned into the hide with a hot iron. “Freeze branding” also is a recognized form of legally identifying animal ownership in Oklahoma.

Anyone interested in obtaining additional information about hot iron and freeze branding should download the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet ANSI-3255, “Livestock Branding in Oklahoma.” Producers need to remember to follow Beef Quality Assurance Guidelines when choosing locations for hot iron brands.

An accurate accounting of livestock and property is essential to a cattle operation’s storm preparedness. Keep a current inventory of all animals and the pastures where they are located.

“Individual animal ID tags on all animals serve several purposes, and can become extremely valuable if cattle become scattered or even stolen,” Anderson said. “During the spring calving season, update these records frequently to reflect the newborn calves that are arriving.”

If the records are computer based, consider having a back-up copy stored at a neighbor’s house or operation, or a relative’s house. These can be emailed to a relative or trusted neighbor to ensure that a digital copy is always available. Hand-written records can be photocopied and placed in two different locations.

“We do not like to think about the unthinkable situation of a direct hit on our home or livestock buildings, but tornados and wildfires occasionally do destroy these structures,” Anderson said. “After the disaster is over, that second set of records could prove to be an inexpensive and very helpful bit of disaster preparedness.”

In addition, finding and storing contact information of several hay suppliers could be useful in the event hay is lost for whatever reason, especially if standing forage in pastures are likewise affected.

“Knowing hay of acceptable quality is available to purchase in an emergency can be very reassuring,” Anderson said. “Preparation is not a cost but rather an investment of one’s time, energy and effort. It’s far easier to plan for the worst and not be hit by a disaster than the reverse.”

The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is one of two state agencies administered by OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, along with the statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system.

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