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Drought Won’t Knock Us Down

07:44AM Feb 11, 2013

Three cattlemen adjust to weather hardships

The drought has had lasting effects on farmers across the country. Cattlemen in particular have dealt with low forage supplies and water availability, and changed management practices to survive in adverse conditions.

During the 2013 Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Cattlemen’s College, three producers shared their tips for surviving—and thriving through dry times.

Forage Innovation

A O D  CopeO.D. Cope of Auroura, Mo., took advantage of near-bare pastures in August of 2012 to aerial-sow a variety of cover crop mixes 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. I’ve never seeded turnips before in my life, 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."

The drought for him started in 2011, from the previous year holding on, filled the barns with as much hay as possible and bagged 700 tons of corn silage in 2012, a first for his operation.

Have a Plan

B John MaddoxDrought is nothing new for Nebraska rancher John Maddox. Even looking back to the early 2000s, his experiences in the past allowed him to prepare 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 zapped the native grasses that Maddox relies on for summer grazing. Shifting the cowherd to 15,000 acres of irrigation cornstalk fields this year helped him retain the cowherd numbers, "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 of this and put some plans together," he says. "Making tough decisions before things get bad is so much better than someone else making them for you."

Determining our realistic carrying capacity is critical to managing our resource, 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 any major snow event, which is a great competitive advantage."

Ready to Move Water

C Linda DavisIn the past 14 years, northern New Mexico rancher Linda Davis says their 100,000-acre operation has received less than 6" of rain per year. Going from about 2,500 cows to 400 cows during that time has put much financial strain on the multiple family operation. Moving from Herefords to a crossbred Hereford and Red Angus system helped the cattle better acclimate to higher elevations.

On the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, the biggest problem Davis has seen has been water availability—"in the last 60 years, the water table has dropped 10’ every decade," she says.

Close enough to the Aquala Aquifer, everything is being depleated east. No snow has fallen on the east side of the Rockies, she adds.

"Our biggest challenge is to keep the moral of my crew, which is mostly family. We have good water rights, but no water," she says.

Being so isolated in the area means the operation puts up all of their own hay and any cottonseed supplement that they do purchase has to be trucked or railed in.

A few years ago, Davis’ son found a used Forest Service tanker truck has allowed the family to move water to areas of the ranch where there is forage, but not close to water.

"Water rights are worth however much water there is," she says. "If you have rights but no water, that’s it."