Surviving Drought in the Cow/Calf Business
Remaining in the cow calf business during intense drought is a challenge. How to keep your cow herd intact, avoid hammering your pastures and maintaining a positive bottom line is indeed a tough problem. If you wait to reduce numbers until conception rates drop then you have waited way too long to reduce numbers. You have hurt your pastures and your bottom line.
To remain in the cow calf business you have to have a cow and that cow needs to produce a calf.
Of first importance: be on a short calving season, 45 to 60 days. That is 2 or 3 heat cycles. Since the heritability of fertility is low, put extra pressure on fertility. The heritability of fertility is low but it is not zero. Cull cows that do not breed. If you raise your own replacements keep more heifers to replace a higher attrition rate. Cull cows and select replacement heifers on the basis of “getting bred”; Conformation is important but looks can be secondary to actually having a female breed. The bred female will be more valuable in the long run than the open female with the greatest conformation. For sure cull all no breeders.
Having a short calving season helps the rancher strategically target supplementation of energy, protein and minerals during a shorter period of time: put supplement dollars into the cow after weaning and thru the time the cow is bred back. Progesterone dominates the bred cow’s metabolism, sending signals to her system to hoard nutrients to prepare for the drain on body condition and reserves when she calves again. The hormone Oxytocin, the milk let down hormone, signals the cow’s metabolism to convert reserves and consumed nutrients to milk.
During a drought a cow needs a longer vacation (the time between weaning and the next calf) to build up the best possible energy reserves to prepare for the next calf. During a good year 45 to 60 days may be plenty of time, but during a drought a cow may need much more time. Resist getting greedy for a few more pounds of beef to ship at weaning at the expense of not getting a cow bred back. Research shows that even if a cow has self weaned and kicked off her 10 or 11 month old calf still at her side, she is still influenced by Oxytocin. She is less efficient in building reserves while “under the influence” of Oxytocin. Do not be afraid to treat you cows like they belong to a labor union. Give them enough vacation time to build their energy reserves as much as possible before she has her next calf.
A cow calf producer needs his cows to produce a calf every year, wet or droughty. Nothing can affect a rancher’s bottom line like timely rains. When those rains do not come, getting a live healthy calf on the ground is of great importance in maintaining a positive bottom line.