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Opportunity from Adversity

Posted Nov. 1, 1998

The year is winding down, and it's been a hard one. The drought of 1998 has affected every livestock producer in our area, most in a very negative way. The constant heat and lack of rainfall caused virtually everyone to ask hard questions about their short and long-term direction. Some have called it quits. Others have assumed a wait-and-see position before taking more severe actions than they have already been forced to take.

Many, however, are now thinking through their past and current operations with long-term intentions of staying in the business; yet, they are seeking and considering changes that will help them avoid future mental and economic hardship caused by the drought of 1998. The drought caused many cow/calf producers in our part of the world to significantly reduce livestock numbers.

At this point in time, they have purchased hay and feed to winter the cows that are most likely to pay them back over the long term (4-7 year-olds that will give them a calf in 1999). Many will be extremely cautious about rebuilding their herds next year. The opportunity exists however, to think about our operations in the coming year and beyond and make the most of what the drought has dealt us. In 1998 many producers began "winter-feeding" in August.

For instance, forced culling this summer and fall offered many producers the opportunity to tighten down or to maintain a limited calving season. In good times and bad, this practice more than any other will improve the efficiency of an operation. When it is time to rebuild numbers, stage of reproduction should be a primary factor in replacement female purchases.

They should calve within the 60-90 day window that matches your existing herd and resources. Use this opportunity to get there and stay there. The most important economic performance trait in a commercial cow/calf herd is the cow's ability to conceive, gestate, deliver, and raise a calf to weaning every 365 days.

With reduced numbers on hand, many producers are finally initiating an individual cow identification and record system. Identification can be as simple as putting a numbered tag in each cow's ear and recording her number on an individual card, pocket record book, or computer program.

Other identifying information could include her brucellosis vaccination tag number (which is rarely lost), age, color, origin, breed makeup, etc.; anything that sets her apart from the others. The purpose of individually identifying the cow can be as simple as recording her number alongside her date of calving to ensure she gives you a calf every 365 days. Other individual cow performance information could include her calf's sex, birth weight, actual and adjusted weaning weights, etc. The more information you have, the more accurate your selection and culling procedures will be.

This past spring brought minimal forage growth. Virtually no grass was grown this summer. The only alternatives were to reduce numbers and/or buy hay. As a result, hay prices skyrocketed dramatically, regardless of quality. Dry matter is bringing a premium and will continue to do so until the next growing season. It didn't take much figuring to see that the cost of feeding $80-120/ton hay from August until April would be more than a cow could ever pay back.

Most producers were faced with liquidating 20% to 100% of their cowherds. The result is that many will rebuild cow numbers to a much more conservative permanent-stocking rate. Excess forage produced will be used as hay and/or grazing with temporary livestock enterprises. Additionally, many producers are concerned about the density and vigor of warm season, perennial pastures at emergence next spring. The positive outcome is that many are planning temporary and permanent cross-fencing to give them more control over the grazing management of their abused pastures. This will help recovery in the short term and efficiency of use in the long term.

Hard times are a regular part of agriculture: drought, market lows, ever-increasing input costs, etc. Those who survive periods of extreme adversity adapt and emerge more knowledgeable, progressive, and committed. If you'd like assistance in thinking through potential changes to your operation, give us a call.

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