Other than the terrible drought in California, we have not had much reason to discuss drought in our weekly emails or quarterly newsletters since the spring of 2013. For twelve years prior to that, however, we spent an inordinate amount of time discussing drought. In the fall of 2002, we totally destocked the ranch at PCC Headquarters. We have partially destocked several times since then.
Drought is one of the most difficult things to contend with because we have no control over the weather. According to some meteorologists, we are about half way through a 30-year cycle of drier than normal weather. I have come to the conclusion many of us need to start considering drought as the new normal – and learn to live with it.
The current drought is hitting the northern plains the hardest. It continues to grow and worsen on a weekly basis. I have talked to enough PCC producers and customers to know this drought is worse and more widespread than the current Drought Monitor Map indicates. Click on the link below to access the current Drought Monitor Map.
If you are experiencing drought conditions, here are a few management concepts to consider. First, I want to remind you to stay focused on the things you have some control over. Focusing on the things you have no control over is a waste of time and energy.
- Know when to quit. Some cow-calf producers are determined to hang on and fight until it is no longer possible. That’s an admirable trait, but it may lead to financial ruin. When the drought ends they may find that they have no grass, no cows and no money. There is a big difference between “giving up” and “limiting your losses.”
- Do not feed cows. Avoid feeding hay and other expensive grass substitutes to cows because cows are a depreciating asset. Cows must be able to survive on your cheapest available forage resources. If you don’t have an adequate supply of cheap forages, you should start selling and/or relocating cows. Your hay and other supplemental feeds should be reserved for calves and stockers that can appreciate in value.
- Sell the bottom 20 to 50 percent. Every cowherd has a bottom 20 to 50 percent – and they aren’t that difficult to identify. The sooner you start selling the bottom end of your cows, the more forage you will have for the top end of your cows. I prefer to sell mature cows while holding onto first-calf heifers. Bred heifers eat less and are appreciating in value.
- Early weaning. A cow’s nutritional requirements will decrease dramatically after her calf has been removed. Many producers have successfully weaned calves as young as 60 to 90 days of age. Early weaning makes it much easier for your cows to maintain body condition and breed back on minimum forage resources.
- Take a vacation. Stan Parsons, founder of Ranch Management Consultants, said, “One of the best drought plans is to shut the ranch down and take a vacation until it is over. There is no way you can fight or feed your way out of a long drought.” I agree. Why not take a vacation or get a job in town? Sell your livestock, pay off your debts, put the remaining money in a savings account and go do something else until the drought breaks. Why continue to work so hard – just to lose money?
- Look for opportunities. The fact that everyone else is focused on the negatives creates opportunities for the few who are paying attention. I have never seen a time when this was not true. Stop looking at your situation through a knot hole in the fence. Look over the fence. Think outside the box. Do the unthinkable. Do what you can to make the best of a bad situation.
During the drought and the dust storms of the 1950s, my Grandpa Kimmel would say, “It will rain again, and when it does we will need it.” Grandpa was right on both counts. Keep your chin up. It will rain again. I can’t tell you exactly when it will rain again, but I know it will. I suggest you plan for the worst, while you hope for the best. What should you be doing to prepare for the possibility that this drought persists for another year or two or three? It’s possible.
Tough times won’t last – but tough people and tough cows will. You will discover that our low-maintenance cows have what it takes to maintain production during the worst of times. Over the years, we have heard from hundreds of PCC customers who greatly appreciate the way our cattle can survive with a limited amount of forage resources. There really is a difference!