Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Farmer’s Perspective:
Livestock Farming in the Hot and Dry

Heather Smith Thomas, Salmon, Idaho

This summer has been exceptionally hot and dry in our part of the country — as it has been in many regions. Drought is always a challenge and a worry for those of us who depend on the land for our living. Here in the arid West, we depend on irrigation to grow hay (and to have green meadows for rotationally grazed pastures), and many cattle depend on native grasses in the foothills and mountains for summer grazing.

Many cattle depend on rangeland pastures for summmer grazing.

Last winter’s snowfall in our mountains was adequate to keep our creek running nicely for a while — enough to irrigate our fields in May and June and get a fair hay crop in early July. Spring rains were adequate to start the hill grass growing. But now we’ve had 2 months of unusually hot, dry weather, and the creek is very low — not enough water to irrigate all of the fields after we harvested our hay. There won’t be much regrowth for fall pasture for the cows.

We always pasture the regrowth from our hay meadows
after we harvest the hay and hope there's enough irrigation
water (from our creek) to keep it green and growing.

The range grass long since dried out and quit growing, and protein levels are low. Some range areas have no grass left, and in other regions the tinder-dry grasses (and beetle-killed timber) are ideal fuel for wildfires.

In the past few weeks we’ve had a number of lightning-caused fires in this part of Idaho, and several are still raging out of control. The smoke in our valley has been so thick the past few days that we can’t see the mountains (or even the hill behind our house!), and it’s difficult to breathe. The smoke is almost as bad as it was the summer of 2000, when the nearby Clear Creek fire was the largest in the nation; we were immersed in heavy smoke and falling ashes for more than a month. The summer of 2003 was a bad fire year also, and part of our cattle range burned — leaving nothing but charred ground in many places.

Part of our cattle range burned after a lightning-caused fire
got out of control in 2003, destroying a lot of timber, along
with 3 miles of fence. It burned so hot in some places that it
consumed the plant roots and topsoil clear down to the rocks.

Drought hurts us all — the land, the animals, and the farmers and ranchers who are trying to feed our nation. Cattle prices have been very good the past couple of years and were predicted to stay high for a while but have now softened because of drought damage to the corn crop in the sweltering Midwest. Even though many of us don’t feed grain to our cattle, market price for our animals is tied to ups and downs of corn prices because the feeding industry depends on corn.

With pasture conditions deteriorating across much of the country these past couple of months, an increased number of cull cows and young cattle were sent to market earlier than usual, which also had an effect on cattle prices. Thus the prices we can expect for our animals this year may be lower than what we’d hoped. Our own little group of steers may not weigh as much as last year (because the grass is not as good) and may not bring as much money per pound.

With range and pastures suffering from drought this summer,
many cattle were rounded up early and sent to market early.

Meanwhile, we do what we can to keep them growing and healthy. Since the grass is not as good, we are paying closer attention to trying to manage our pastures as best we can, dividing our field pastures into smaller segments and doing a better job of rotational grazing — to take advantage of every small area on our ranch that is growing any grass.

By putting the cattle into smaller segments of meadow pasture, we can confine them to a certain area to eat it more completely (instead of wasting the taller, coarser plants) and move them often, so they have something new and fresh (and nutritious) interspersed with having to eat the tall, dry stuff. With only a tiny bit of irrigation water left in the creek, we are concentrating it on the few areas that are still green, to enable those pastures to keep growing (and produce more forage) — making the cattle rotate through the drier hayfield aftermath first, to buy more time for the portions that are still able to grow.

Another strategy to stretch our feed will be to wean our calves early and put them on the small pastures we’re still able to keep green. That way they can keep growing; the green grass has a lot more protein and nutrients than the dry forage.

In dry years we wean calves early and
put them into our greenest pastures.

The dry cows (after weaning their calves) won’t need such a high level of nutrition and can rough through the fall and into the winter on the drier grass. A lactating cow requires a lot more good feed than a dry cow, and often the best way to save feed is to wean the calves. Otherwise, you have to supplement the lactating cow with alfalfa hay or a commercial protein product or she’ll just lose weight trying to feed her calf.

Taking the cows back up to our 320-acre pasture after weaning
their calves. The dry cows can do fine on dry feed; they don't need
a high protein level when they are no longer lactating — and we can
save our small amount of green grass for their calves.

We learned a long time ago that in dry years it was best to wean the calves as soon as we brought the cows home from the range in September and let the calves have the little bit of green feed in some of the home meadows — and take the cows back up to our own mountain pasture to finish grazing through fall and winter. That way they didn’t eat up the green fields quickly (the calves consume a lot less than the cow/calf pairs) and the dry cows didn’t need a protein supplement on our hill pasture. Every farm and ranch is different, and you have to figure out what works best for your own situation to stretch your feed supplies and still make sure you are meeting the animals’ nutritional needs.

Water is another crucial factor to consider on a dry year. When it’s hot the cattle need more water, yet some of the water sources become less dependable. On our range some of the little creeks that run continually on a cool, wet year go completely dry during a hot, dry summer. Some of the springs we’ve piped into water troughs run less water, and some of them dry up. Ponds shrink and become mud bogs instead. Checking water sources becomes a very important job, to make sure the cattle have adequate water.

On the range and on our private ground, we’ve piped
a lot of springs into water tanks for the cattle.

When our cattle are out on rangeland, we ride almost daily to check on them and their water sources. On occasion we’ve had to repair or unplug a water line, or move some of the cattle to a different area, or keep them more dispersed so there are not too many thirsty mouths trying to drink at a trough that’s being fed by a spring that’s cut down to half its usual flow.

When water supplies get short, sometimes we move some
of the cattle to different areas, to keep them dispersed so there
won't be too many trying to obtain water at the same water sources.

We can’t control the weather or make it rain, but we can be proactive in taking care of our cattle and doing whatever might be necessary to keep them healthy and happy and growing. They might not be worth as much this fall as we’d hoped, but we can do our best to make sure they stay healthy and grow to their best potential under the conditions we do have some control over.


If you would like to publish this essay by Heather Smith Thomas, please e-mail:

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

No comments: