Droughts: Cattle Producers Making Tough Decisions

By: Justin Miller

AUBURN, Ala. – Drought forces cattle producers to make tough decisions. Without an adequate supply of feed and water and cost effective ways of supplying the herd, producers will need to reduce cattle numbers.

Weaning calves is one way to reduce nutritional requirements of the herd. Dry cows require less nutritious feed than lactating cows. Dr. Lisa Kriese-Anderson, an Alabama Extension animal scientist, said that producers might consider keeping and feeding the weaned calves.

“If you have a place to wean the calves, and an inexpensive alternate source of nutritious feed, you should put weight on the calves and market them in the fall,” said Kriese-Anderson. “If the alternate feed source is reasonably priced, the heavier weights will always pay off. If you do not have a place to put the calves, producers should market the calves immediately.”

Producers who have purebred herds should calculate weaning age before weaning the calves. The calves should fall within the correct age window for purebred associations to accept weaning data.

When considering reducing herd size, have a veterinarian pregnancy-check the herd. The veterinarian should also evaluate each cow for foot and leg soundness, udder quality, teeth condition and disposition. Cull cows that are not pregnant and those that have  physical defects.

Producers should also evaluate the cows for body condition score. It is important to have cows in body condition of 5 to 6 at calving. Cows that are in poor condition need to be culled if you are unable to feed them economically to a body condition score of 5 before calving.

Culling the lowest producing cows in the herd is another way to decrease the herd size. Recordkeeping can help determine those low producers. Rank cows by their production records. Most computerized records report the Most Probable Producing Ability (MPPA) for each cow. MPPA indicates in ratio form how each cow is expected to produce given her performance history. If you have non-computerized records and would like to calculate MPPA values on each cow, contact your Extension regional animal science and forage agent for assistance.

The next step in decreasing the herd is culling herd bulls, especially ones producers want to replace. In extreme situations, market all herd bulls to reduce the number of cattle. Producers can replace bulls later.

Producers may be able to postpone declaring some income from livestock sold during the drought to a later tax year. Discuss this with an accountant or with one of Extension’s farm management analysis economists. Your county Extension agent can put you in touch with the one closest to you.

Remember that a minimum of 0.5 percent of body weight of roughage must be supplied daily to keep the rumen functioning. Producers need to carefully estimate their forage supplies, alternative feed supplies and body weight of their cattle. Keeping the body condition score of cows and profit/loss margins in mind will dictate the amount of culling needed to survive the drought.