Cattlemen Adjust

March 8, 2013 08:05 PM

Three cattle producers share how they handle drought

A O D  Cope

O. D. Cope

The drought has had lasting effects on farmers across the country. Cattlemen in particular have dealt with low forage supplies and water availability for animals, which required some to change management practices during adverse conditions. During National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s (NCBA) Cattlemen’s College, at the 2013 Cattle Industry Convention in February, three producers shared their tips for surviving—and thriving through dry times.

The most important thing is have a plan. Hope is not a plan

Forage innovation. O.D. Cope of Aurora, Mo., took advantage of near-bare pastures this past August to aerial-sow a variety of cover crop mixtures for his 2,500-head cow herd. "We were desperate for forage, so we started cleaning off some of the hilly sloops, aerial-seeding fescue and turnips," he said. "I have never seeded turnips before, but I’d seen the dairy boys do it and the cows seemed to like it. At the other farm, we no-tilled cereal rye with turnips."

Located in southwest Missouri, Cope said the drought for them started in 2011. Seeing that 2012 wasn’t going to be much wetter, he weaned calves early, filled his barns with as much hay as possible, and bagged 700 tons of corn silage in 2012, a first for the farm.

John Maddox

John Maddox

Have a plan. Drought is nothing new for Nebraska rancher John Maddox. Even looking back to the early 2000s, his experiences prepared him for the future. "The most important thing is to have a plan. Hope is not a plan," he said. 

Even with 75% of normal rainfall, the summer heat in 2012 zapped the native grasses that Maddox relies on for grazing. Shifting the cowherd to 15,000 acres of irrigated cornstalk fields allowed him to keep his cowherd intact. "We can see the writing on the wall—we know what the summer is shaping up to be. Now is the time to get ahead and make some plans," he says. "Making tough decisions before things get bad is better than someone else making them for you later."

Determining a realistic carrying capacity per acre is critical, he says. "We can use those crop residues and not feed any additional supplement to our cowherd and graze almost 365 days a year, pardon a major snow event."

Linda Davis

Linda Davis

Ready to move water. In the past 14 years, northern New Mexico rancher Linda Davis says their 100,000-acre operation has had less than 6" of rain per year.

Culling their cowherd from about 2,500 cows to 400 cows in that time has put a financial strain on the multiple-family operation. Incorporating Red Angus genetics into their Hereford herd has helped cows acclimate to higher grazing elevations. But on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, the biggest problem Davis has is water availability—"in the last 60 years, the water table has dropped 10' every decade," she says.

A few years ago, her son purchased a used Forest Service tanker truck to haul water to grazing areas where cattle don’t have access to drinking water.

The farm is near the depleating Ogallala Aquifer, and no snowfall on the east side of the Rockies makes the situation dire. "We have good water rights, but no water," she says. "If you have rights but no water, that’s it."

For more coverage from the 2013 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention, visit

You can e-mail Sara Brown at


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