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Guidelines for Stocking Decisions During a Drought

By Shan Ingram

Posted Aug. 1, 1998

This article was last updated in February 2018

The four primary rules of destocking are:

  1. The sooner the problem is identified, the sooner appropriate actions can be taken.
  2. The sooner stocking adjustments are made, the less severe the herd reductions will need to be.
  3. Maximize available options and minimize long-term negative impacts on the forage resource.
  4. Maximize the effective use of precipitation by having enough residual forage to capture and utilize limited precipitation and reduce evaporative losses.

These mistakes are commonly made when producers are facing a drought:

  • Do nothing in hopes that conditions (rain or leased pastures) will improve.
  • When the decision is made to destock, calves are early weaned in hopes that no cows will have to be sold.
  • Young cows (less than 4) are kept at the expense of more productive (4-7 year-old) cows when culling is finally started.

The most logical order to use when culling during a drought is:

  1. Cull any spring or summer calving cow that does not have a calf at side. This would include fall and winter calvers that didn't raise a calf. This will reduce many herds by 5 to 15 percent.
  2. Cull replacement heifers (either raised or purchased) that are not in production (raising a calf).
  3. First-calf heifers typically wean smaller calves and rebreed at lower percentages than mature cows during a drought. This makes them the next logical choice to be culled.

By culling in the order outlined above, we have not significantly affected this year's calf crop, but we have reduced our supplemental feed needs and more importantly are giving the remaining available forage to the cows that are contributing to the income of the operation.

If further reductions are needed, they should be made in the following order:

  1. Cull short bred fall and winter calving cows as well as long bred spring or summer calvers.
  2. Inspect all cows and consult records. Look at feet, legs, udders, and current calf at side. Cull marginal producers. If records reveal that questionable producers exist, cull them.

From this point on, if additional culling is required, it will significantly impact this year's calf crop. This is quite difficult for most producers to implement, but it may be necessary.

The next culling order should be:

  1. Sell the short and broken mouth cows. These cows are somewhat handicapped in a drought.
  2. Sell cows that are genetically inferior.

Before further liquidation is implemented, determine which cows are bred and consider selling open cows as pairs. Now all the easy and logical decisions have been made and implemented. Notice that the wholesale selling of calves has not been suggested. During a drought, to destock, we need to eliminate cows because they consume the bulk of the forage.

  1. The next cows to cull would be the 8-10 year old cows regardless of production status.
  2. We can then cull on uniformity. Sell the smallest and the largest cows.

Beyond the earlier outlined steps, we would now be down to 4-7 year old cows. They will probably represent 10 to 30 percent of the original herd. You should sell them if they cannot be sustained in an economic fashion. It is probably a small consolation, but it is better to completely destock than to sell a few cows, buy expensive hay and feed, and lose the ranch in the end.

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