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Producer Perspective: Take Care of Cattle and Grass During Drought

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Jeffrey Reuter is watching the sky for rain. In the meantime, he's considering selling cattle.

Reuter raises beef cattle about 12 miles southwest of El Reno, Oklahoma, in Canadian County, where producers are faced with at least abnormally dry and up to extremely dry conditions, according to the U.S. drought monitor released March 20, 2018. The Mesonet reports El Reno has received only 1.88 inches of rainfall this year.

Reuter manages about 100 cows, some spring-calving and others fall-calving. He also grazes stocker cattle on about 400 acres of no-till wheat and rye pastures, which he hasn't harvested for grain in about 15 years.

Jeffrey Reuter Jeffrey Reuter manages a cow-calf herd and stocker cattle near El Reno, Oklahoma. He represents the third generation to make his living from this property. This photo was taken as part of a 2008 Legacy story featuring Reuter and other Oklahoma ranchers.

What effects of drought are you seeing on your ranch?

The early spring grasses are slower in coming up this year, and the wheat is not producing as much as usual. I'm stocking at about two-thirds the rate I normally would this time of year. Normally I run about 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per acre on the wheat pasture. Right now, I'm closer to 600 to 700 pounds. The ponds are still in pretty good shape, especially the spring-fed ones. But in the last week or two, I've noticed they've started to drop fast. Those that aren't being filled with from spring sources are down a good 5 or 6 feet.

What does your hay situation look like?

I'm usually able to stop feeding hay in about mid-April. But the way it looks today, I can't get to mid-May without more hay than I've got. I started buying hay last summer and passed on some because it wasn't the quality I wanted. Now it's gone, and I'm feeding other hay at a similar quality because that's what was available. At this point, most of the hay in our area has been fed or sold. It's a real problem.

What plans are you making for the future?

My focus will be not only on getting through in the short-term but also on preventing as much long-term damage (such as from overgrazing) as possible. I'm watching my forage and hay stocks, and I'm preparing to pull the trigger and sell cattle if I need to. We're in spring, so that gives you some hope it will still rain. But if it doesn't rain in the next 60 to 90 days, we won't have many cattle on our place. Fall through spring, I always divide my stocker cattle up by size. That way I know where to find the biggest steers and heifers when I need to start selling. I'm also planning to wean my calves early this year. I'm hoping to have my calves off the cows within the next week or two.

What advice do you have for other producers?

We all have to ask ourselves "How long do I wait to sell my cattle based on my supply of forage and hay?" The situation is going to be different for everybody. When it comes down to it, I may decide I need to sell cattle to protect the long-term productivity of my forage base even if I still have some hay left. Overgrazing can be costly in the long-term, which is why it's important to consider the condition of both the cattle and the pastures. If you don't have the resources to feed the cattle, don't try to keep them. There will always be cattle, so don't be afraid to sell what you have to. You can always buy back.

Any final thoughts?

Drought is something we can't get away from. We don't know how far out the next rains are. I know there are people west of me who are in a lot worse shape. It's a trying time, but this drought won't last forever. It may seem like it, but it won't.

Find advice and tips to help you manage through drought at noble.org/drought. If you would like to connect with a Noble Research Institute agricultural consultant about a specific question or situation, reach out to us on our Ag Helpline online or by calling 580-224-6500.