Drought is a given; what can we do?

Drought happens. As Nebraska weather patterns cycle from wet to dry periods, drought finds its way here eventually. Still, it is an understatement to say that 2012 has been a challenge for agricultural producers and the ag businesses, organizations and agencies that work alongside them. According to the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s website www.-drought.unl.edu/ranchplan/Overview: Drought is a normal part of climate...it will happen again. Fortunately, there are things you can do before, during, and after drought to reduce your risk. Ranchers are increasingly implementing new ways to better prepare for and respond to drought. Ranch, farm, and feedlot operations today have both experience and resources with which to manage for drought, and much of this know-how was put to a test this year. Producers have made adjustments in cattle turn-out dates, pasture rotations for breeding groups, weaning, creep feeding, culling and pregnancy checking cows, irrigation, watering feeder cattle pens, etc. in order to manage the effects of months of severely low moisture. They’ve also found some positives about drought, as difficult as that may be to believe. For example, few mosquitoes, little need to mow roadside ditches, and the grass that grew was nutrient-dense so grazing cattle performed well on much less tonnage of pasture feed.Alternative Feeds For Callaway farmer and rancher Neil Jorgenson, planting turnips was one answer to feed shortages. “We flew on turnip, rapeseed and radishes on our (pivot irrigated) corn,” Jorgenson said, “probably in early September for extra feed.” He then ran the pivot to help sprout the seed. Now that his corn is harvested, more sunlight is getting to the turnips and the corn shucks and leaves are protecting the crop. “If the weather holds we should have turnips in three weeks.” He also baled his soybean stubble and put up his dryland corn for ensilage, an option in any year but a necessity this year for dryland crops. “I planted rye in my soybean ground for next spring so I’ll have some rye grass to turn cows on. If it doesn’t rain,” he added, “I may leave the rye and run cows on it.” This is all new for Jorgenson. Aside from planting turnips years ago – it worked well in hailed corn but not as well on his irrigated corn acres – he has had to improvise how he farms and feeds his cattle through the summer and fall. “I put creep feeders out, which I usually don’t do, in July. And we weaned the third week of August, which was six weeks early.” He also pulled cows out of pastures early because his cornstalks were available earlier than normal, thus allowing his pastures to rest. Next year is on his mind. He may have to run his cows on irrigated feeds and cut back the number of cows he keeps and breeds. Since he preg checked earlier than normal, he has options here, too. “We may have to look at culling our older cows which we haven’t done yet.” Jorgenson has tried to think ahead, he said, asking himself, “What’s next if it doesn’t rain? Where do we go from there?” Drought Plan Thinking “down the road” is a must for ag producers, and drought years help hone those skills. Brewster rancher Frank Utter manages the Horn Land and Cattle operation. By April, Utter was adjusting the rotations of his 30 primary pastures, altering a rotation grazing plan decided upon a year in advance whereby different pastures are grazed at different times in succeeding year. By May, he decided to forego running his calves over as yearlings. All of these decisions were part of Utter’s drought plan which he drew up several years ago. While there are no specific dates, the plan does have specific steps he would take when faced with drought-forced decisions. First: Yearlings are on the ranch for extra forage years only. Second: irrigation systems. When necessary Utter can water 300 acres via two ranch pivots and raise additional feed for grazing. Third: the cow herd. “The first cut is based on age of cow,” he said. And if the drought worsens or the available forage cannot support the number of cows remaining, the next step is cull based on performance. To this end Utter regularly records dams with perennially light calves, those with continually delayed calving dates, temperament issues, or udder problems. His plan is to maintain a 500 cow herd (down from 650) next year if possible. “I guess our biggest tool that I use is…a grazing program called The Grazing Manager,” Utter said. “It doesn’t work off of AUM’s (Animal Unit Measurements), but demand days with forage types and numbers of cows with weights in and out. It gives you a pretty good idea of how much forage you’ll use or have left, and you can adjust that throughout the year.” He can input options such as wean ten days early and see how much longer each pasture unit could be grazed and still leave desirable plant height and leaves. As for next year, Utter said he’ll still follow his drought plan, but it evolves daily. “You have to be committed to a plan but be flexible enough to know that it may have to change.” Change a ConstantChange is a constant in a feedlot. Custer County Feeders, located just south of Oconto, contracted last year to feed cattle exclusively for Adams Land & Cattle of Broken Bow. Manager Roger Schultze said that the 12,600 capacity feedlot this year had to change its feeding plan due to the drought. “We couldn’t get as much of the high moisture corn,” he said, “and we had to chop more silage acres. The dryland corn was toast so we had to go into the irrigated acres.” How they work their pens was also affected. Dust covered everything and wind was another challenge. They regularly watered down the front of their pens with a 1500 gallon water truck, giving the cattle cool places to lie down and helping to control the dust. Their cattle supply is also a little smaller, Schmidt said. As for some rare positives, drought helped with insect issues. There were no mosquitoes, and flies didn’t really arrive until this fall with harvest. The feedlot was also able to clean their settling ponds and lagoons due to the extreme dry weather, a job normally reserved for after harvest. “We’re ahead of the game in that department,” he added. Diversified Ag Producers Pandorf Land and Cattle is in all three games: they farm, ranch, and feed cattle northwest of Callaway along the South Loup River. And all three aspects of this family owned business is changing due to drought. “We started pregging cows yesterday,” Mark Pandorf said. “I told myself I’m just going to cull the big framey cows, and anything nine years and older. You’ve got to start somewhere. After that, if we still have to cull… I don’t know. And we probably will.” Pandorf’s struggle as he sells off a ranch’s factory – the cow – is a recurring theme in ranch after ranch throughout drought country. There is a huge amount of time, energy, and genetics invested in each cow. Merchandising early is both a financial and personal slap since cattlemen and women know many of their cows individually. As spring quickly became summer, Pandorf’s family adapted their feeding plans, irrigated hard to bring in their crops, and weaned early. “Normally I don’t feed very many (cattle) in the summer time,” he said. “This summer I kept a lot of the cattle we bought (to go to grass) in the yard. If we don’t get some rain we’ll feed in yards again next summer, but we’ll cut down on numbers because of roughage.” PLC also planted rye after soybeans under pivots so that they’ll have spring pasture next year. They also continued their practice of planting wheat or rye behind irrigated fields they chopped for silage, but they did not plant wheat behind dryland corn as they normally do. “We didn’t bale any of our own dryland fields; we chopped a lot of them. We did buy some dryland corn bales.” They also trucked cattle away for the summer to free up and stretch their own range resources. As for the near future, Pandorf plans to cull deeper. “With the cows, my plan is to cull pretty deep when we’re pregging. The next step is we’ll just keep culling the older cows, and try to hang on to the younger part of the herd.”Next week: Second in Mary Ridder’s three part series: Managing Drought Ag Business: What We Can Do Part two will focus on agricultural businesses who daily work with farmers and ranchers and their strategies for addressing drought.