How to make your farm more drought-resilient
By Dirk Philipp, Associate Professor – Forages
Drought events are relatively common in the southeastern US where summer temperatures are high, evaporation rates are high, and precipitation is distributed unevenly across the year. Extreme droughts are difficult to deal with, but beef farm management can be tweaked and improved over time so that short-term drought events have less severe impacts on the operation and long-term farm survival. Let’s consider the three main interrelated and interacting components of a beef farm, pasture, animals, and the environment, and how we can manage each of it towards more drought resilience.
Pasture: From a simplified perspective, pastures are made up of soil and growing forage, and there are ways of increasing water use efficiency and soil water retention. The ground should always be covered, and with that we mean healthy forage stands and trying to close forage gaps throughout the year as much as possible. Plant cover means that erosion is slowed and water can infiltrate more evenly without running off. The more forage is produced, the more root growth takes place in the soil which in turn is beneficial for maintaining and increasing soil organic matter, soil stability, and providing substrate to soil microorganisms, all of which in turn improve soil health and water retention. Extending the grazing season into late fall and winter via stockpiled forages provide additional grazing days for livestock, thereby reducing costly hay purchases. Fall and winter forages such as cereals or turnips may also be able to scavenge part of the nitrogen that is cycled back into the soil from grazing earlier during the year. Grazing stockpiled forages, either warm- or cool-season species resulting in staggered grazing times, will increase the return of organic material to the soil that will also help in absorbing water during winter rain events. Grazing methods play a large role too, as it has been shown that more intensive methods such as rotational stocking can increase soil health by recycling a larger amount of biomass. It is also a good idea to experiment with summer annual forages to test which ones do best on your place. Pearl millet and sorghum-sudangrass are mainstays in Arkansas and have been good choices as these are warm-season forages which are more drought tolerant than perennial cool-season forages. They won’t survive without water obviously either, but if droughts should become more frequent in the future, producers have a tool at hand that allows them to replace traditional cool-season forages during certain times of the year. Observe precautions however regarding nitrate and prussic acid accumulation, however. Overgrazing of pastures should be strictly avoided as this will weaken pasture recovery and will give weeds an advantage. In addition, bare spots mean increasing soil temperatures which in turn will increase soil water evaporation.
Animals. Cattle need sufficient amounts of clean drinking water to get through the summer. During a prolonged drought heat stress is exacerbated and amounts of water delivered have to be vastly increased. To avoid any problems, plan carefully in advance on how to address water delivery to cattle. This involves providing various water access points with different water sources, such as a ponds, wells, or city line connections. It is unlikely that during a severe drought all of these will fail at the same time. Shade is an important component to animal management as it alleviates heat stress during the hottest parts of the day. There’s always the discussion that shade areas will develop into muddy areas and that grazing time will be reduced. During a prolonged drought which most of the time comes with high day-time temperatures, shade together with sufficient amounts of drinking water can be a lifesaver. Shade structures should be kept away from the water sources, however, so that the water sources don’t become impaired from defecation.
Environment. Many beef farms feature streams, creeks, or springs. It cannot be stressed enough that it is just not a good idea of letting animals roam freely around these waterways as these landscape features are associated with woody vegetation that keep the surroundings cool, reduce evaporation, and retain soil moisture. Water access to streams can be provided, but should be limited to certain areas with a low disturbance potential. Creeks in healthy riparian areas may carry water well into a prolonged drought and should thus be protected.
In summary, good grazing management, providing reliable water access points for the animals, and good stewardship of natural resources will go a long way towards being prepared for drought events.
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Dr. Tom Troxel Dr. Michael L. Looper
Animal Science Welcomes an Extension Veterinarian
We are very proud to announce a new faculty member; Dr. Heidi Ward. Dr. Ward, Assistant Professor and Extension Veterinarian, is responsible for herd health educational programs and the 4-H veterinarian science project for the Division of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, and Department of Animal Science. She will be working in the area of beef and dairy cattle, sheep and goats as well as equine. Dr. Ward is an Oklahoma native with a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma and a DVM from Oklahoma State University.
For the past six years, Dr. Ward worked as a clinical veterinarian in Montana and Arkansas while participating in infectious disease surveillance work. She has a particular interest in herd medicine and bio-security because it combines both science and medicine for the benefit of the producer and consumer.
US Beef Cow Expansion
The US beef cow herd is expected to show strong growth in 2015 thanks to strong calf prices and, even more importantly, excellent pasture conditions and declining feed costs. While at the start of the year the assumption was producers would seek to rebuild their herds given the strong incentives in the market, much of that was dependent on the ability to keep retained heifers in the herd.
Too often in the past producers would retain heifers only to sell them off later due to the lack of available feed. But this year so far has been a continuation of what we saw last year – ample grass supplies and a strong push to retain females rather than send them to the feedlot. The latest USDA crop progress report showed that for week ending July 12, 65% of pastures were in good/excellent condition. This is a 10 point improvement from the previous year and an almost 20 point improvement from the 10 year average.
In 2012, when drought in the Southern Plains forced producers to liquidate a lot of productive cows, the national pasture good/excellent rating was a mere 19%, 46 points lower than today. Conditions in Texas and Oklahoma, which in recent years have been greatly affected by drought, show a dramatic improvement. In the latest report, 77% of pastures and ranges in Texas and 67% in Oklahoma were rated in good/excellent condition.
With plentiful grass, and some of the best calf prices on record, there is little surprise that cow-calf operators are holding on to every cow and heifer they can. Female slaughter (cows/heifers) in May and June was just 40% of the total, well below the levels we saw during the herd rebuilding years in 2005 and 2006.
Consider these numbers: Total cattle slaughter for the period May 3 – June 27 was 4.432 million head, down 358,290 head (-7.5%) compared to the previous year and down 705,782 head (13.7%) compared to the same period in 2013. Female slaughter (cow/calf) during May and June in 2015 was 1.823 million head, down 258,198 head (-12.4%) from a year ago and down 520,743 head (-22.2%) compared to 2013. So the decline in female slaughter has accounted for a little over 2/3 of the overall reduction in US cattle slaughter in May and June of this year. This is normally expected during herd rebuilding years—if anything, the reduction this year has been even more dramatic and consistent with the excellent returns cow-calf operators are enjoying at this time.
Implications: Feedlot placements are expected to be low through the summer, which will continue to limit the supply of cattle coming to market later this year and in early 2016 (Source CME Group).
Hide Values Decline
During the first half of 2015, the value of cattle hides has averaged about $10 per head lower than last year. In June hide values average $86/head compared to $107/head last year, down $21 per head. The fact that cattle slaughter is experiencing one of the largest year-over-year declines and yet hide values have recently plummeted suggests demand for hides has dropped like a rock. And since most U.S. cattle hides and pieces go to international customers, mainly China, does this rapid change in the market suggest major changes occurring with the global economy?
Much discussion has turned towards concerns of a slowdown in economic growth in China as well as focusing on the situation in Greece and how that might impact the U.S. and the rest of the world. Considering that China has experienced double digit growth in GDP for at least 10 years and now there is some analysis suggesting their GNP growth could drop below 5%, this would be a rather large shift in the global economy.
The export value of hides is down 10% so far in 2015 compared to last year, and of the top 10 U.S. export markets for hides, only South Korea (#2 buyer) has increased compared to 2014. Wholesale beef prices in the second half of 2015 are expected to be below a year ago, which coupled with a lower export volume forecast suggests the total value of beef exports will be lower for the year, in addition to the lower hide values (Source CattleFax).
For more information about cattle production, visit www.uaex.edu or contact your county extension office.
Did you know?
The output joule rating of the energizer should be used to compare different brands of electric fence energizer’s. The joule rating of the energizer may be expressed as stored or output joules. The stored joules are the amount of joules stored in the energizer’s capacitors. The output joules are the amount of joules used to power the fence. Output joules will be approximately 70 percent of the stored joules.
It is August!!! Beef Cattle Tips is a monthly newsletter designed to remind you of timely production practices that could benefit your operation. In this month’s issue, pink eye is a troublesome disease throughout the summer caused by bacteria in combination with external irritants such as face flies, UV light, dust and plant seeds. For prevention or treatment, follow advice of a veterinarian.
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Did you know?
“AGree, an agricultural think tank released a report on how to improve the food and agricultural research system and called on Congress to hold hearings on the topic. See a summary here by Agri-Pulse: http://www.agri-pulse.com/AGree-calls-on-Congress-prioritize-ag-research-06242015.asp”
Did you know?
Did you know on average, a typical 1,100-pound horse at regular maintenance consumes four to nine gallons of water per day. The amount of water a horse requires can vary depending upon several factors: time of year, work load, health of the horse, and grazing area. Horse owners should strive to always have fresh water available to the horse year round, especially during winter months when horses typically consume less water.