Managing herd numbers may be the best economic and environmental management tool for grazers dealing with this summer's prolonged drought. That's according to Jess Jackson, a grassland specialist for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Iowa. "Culling less productive breeding stock and weaning young animals early will help cattle producers capitalize on record beef prices and conserve the health and productivity of pastures," he says.
Weaning animals early reduces the nutrient demand on the mother cow by up to 50%. "This helps the breeding herd regain weight, prepare to rebreed and lessen demand on struggling forages," notes Jackson.
Times of drought, especially before cattle prices decline, are a golden opportunity for most producers to cull heavily and select for the most productive genetics. "Wave goodbye to those cows that are old and those that aren't producing like they should be. Send them to the auction and save that money to invest in new breeding stock when the drought breaks," he advises. Jackson recommends continued culling of your cow herd if forage regrowth slows due to a prolonged drought. You'll need to continue the culling of your herd to save on feed expenses.
Establish a "sacrifice paddock" to protect recovery of the other paddocks
For the remaining herd, Jackson recommends cattle producers establish a sacrifice paddock instead of open grazing. A sacrifice paddock, or one that gets heavily grazed, is key to helping pastures quickly return to a usable condition. Long-term abusive grazing will significantly slow the recovery of struggling paddocks.
~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~Jackson explains why. "Plant cells continue to divide during stress periods but stay at an immature size, waiting for good growing conditions to return. Grazing or mowing off these immature cells decreases tonnage of regrowth which actually prolongs the impact of dry weather as cattle producers try to return to normal grazing management after good growing conditions return," he says.
Overgrazing pastures encourages thistles, undesirable grasses and weeds"
In addition, overgrazing tends to encourage thistles, undesirable grasses and weeds that will require time and money to control. "It is usually a better management option to replant the sacrifice paddock rather than have to apply herbicides and fertilizers as well as interseed to repair all the paddocks," notes Jackson.
For the non-sacrifice paddocks, NRCS recommends beef producers maintain a stubble height of 4 inches for most pasture species and up to twice that for native plants. Maintaining some shade protects the soil, allows the plants to produce new leaf cells for a quick rebound, and will help keep weeds at bay, he says.
For on-site assistance with drought planning for grazing lands and for other land uses contact your local NRCS representative at the USDA Service Center in your county.