The bottom line in this and every drought is to protect the forage resource and maintain the productivity of the cow herd. We can never cheat the basics. Many costly lessons are being learned during this drought. Here are three of the most common lessons learned and some general strategies to take forward as conditions get back to "normal."
With no plan in place, people hoped for the best and waited too long to react. Procrastination led to severe damage to forage resources and more drastic culling measures were taken than would have been needed earlier.
Develop a management plan for the next drought. Give serious consideration to the stocking rate to which you return when conditions improve. Set forage thresholds at which action will be taken, then routinely measure and project availability and demand. A good tool is the Reserve Herd Days Calculator on the Noble Research Institute's Web site. The plan should also include potential feeding regimes to maintain production and a flexible culling protocol. And take a personal vow to act in a timely manner next time.
Too often this year, the focus has been on figuring out how to "rough them through" rather than maintaining adequate body condition (BCS 5). As a result, many cows slipped to body condition scores of 4 or even 3. Conception rates are disastrous. Only bred cows will ever have a chance to pay off their drought debt in their lifetimes. Allowing body condition to decline was a costly, shortsighted mistake and made a bad situation worse.
The number one factor affecting the profitability of a cow-calf operation is reproduction. It always has been and always will be. Reproductive efficiency is primarily a function of nutrition. In good times and bad, maintain the herd in a minimum body condition score of 5 year round. In the future, only consider those drought management alternatives that achieve this strategy.
Emergency feeding and marketing were and continue to be nightmares in herds with year round calving. In full feeding or supplementation situations, it is impossible to economically or efficiently provide for "drys" and "wets" together. Their nutritional needs are far too different. A wide range of calf age also makes early weaning and/or marketing more convoluted.
Define a logical breeding/calving season now. It needs to be 90 days or less in length and fit your management and forage resources. This practice will always be the most effective management tool to optimize efficient, economical production. When you restock, the reproductive status of all replacements should fit the early part of this defined calving season or even precede it by a month or two. Also, use re-stocking purchases to maximize the uniformity of your herd in cow breed type and size. Think through your own experience so far this year. We each have our own lessons to learn, and we need to develop a plan so we don't make the same mistakes in the future.