The Stockman Grass Farmer

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August 25, 2011
Managing For Drought
 
By Anibal Pordomingo

Since Argentina is six months out of phase with North America, we can give you some spring and summer drought tips that have been freshly learned.

Managing for drought is different from managing in a drought and everything starts at planning time.

Many of us call ourselves grass farmers but we often forget the basic principles when we farm high dollar pasture-finished beef.

It is common to think about drought plans and hay or silage as synonyms. This is expensive drought planning and lacks strategic planning.

What makes the system more or less drought tolerant is the pasture structure more than the forage reserves.

In most temperate climates, a common constraint of grassfed programs is the unpredictability of forage production.

All programs need to consider the risk of a drought and the nature of its impact. We should analyze drought scenarios for every season, even for the least likely one (spring for many of us). A drought in spring could be more devastating than one in winter or summer.

The impact of drought on our bottom line is even worse if we run on a low-input, limited-hay forage based program.

We all try to plan for the average rainfall and enjoy the luxury of the above average years. The below average years are not too difficult to manage when annual rainfall drops 15 to 20% in a one year down spike.

Most systems, if fairly well designed, will have resilience to tolerate shifts of such magnitude. It means that forage production declines but pastures do not loose the structure (composition and persistence), winter and summer annuals will still establish and be used, and, with adjustments, forage reserves (hay or silage) will be possible to produce.

If the drop in rainfall, however, reaches 30 to 50% below the average, grassfed systems could crack. This collapse will take place when the backbone of the system breaks.

THE PERENNIAL PASTURE BACKBONE

Systems based solely on annual pastures are the least resilient, and would be the first to collapse. Sowing becomes unpredictable and even impossible. The systems run out of forage. Such high-risk systems are not recommended.

For most pasture-based programs of the world, perennial pastures are the backbone. Systems based on perennial pastures have a greater chance of withstanding a drought, but the degree of resilience will depend on the species composition and soil-pasture interactions.

In a drought spell, annual pastures (winter and summer annuals) disappear first, biannual and shallow perennial grasses and legumes follow. Deep-rooted species are the most tolerant resource under such circumstances.

As a safety factor, planning the structure of our improved perennial pastures should include the analysis of the system response to severe drought.

Questions to be asked include:

a) How the pasture would respond in production and stand,

b) What species would remain,

c) Would any remain at all,

d) How good are our forage reserves under the circumstances?

High-quality shallow legumes and tender grasses (e.g. white clover and perennial ryegrass) will be less resilient than alfalfa and orchard grass or tall fescue mixes.

Grass-rich pastures (brome, orchard grass and other) are less drought tolerant than alfalfa or red clover based pastures.

Alfalfa is a heavy user of water when available, but it is also the most drought tolerant legume.

In general, deep-rooted legume and grass mixes tend to withstand environmental impacts better than pure grass stands. The mix will respond better in quantity and quality of forage.

Different from a cow-calf program, quality is the factor that will first affect a grassfed finishing system and can put the program adrift.

A drifting pasture-fed program will rapidly run into shortages of digestible grass, lose control of average daily gains and revert to a stocker operation.

DROUGHT AT HOME - MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Over the last 4 years we have been in a drought in Argentina which does not seem will ever end.

For many of us, this is the most severe and long lasting we have ever known. Some relief comes in sprinkles, which has allowed us to continue our forage finishing program.

Now, we can say that, lucky for us, the backbone of our system are the alfalfa-based perennial pastures. Winter and summer annuals are just used to fill the forage weaknesses of the forage chain.

Dealing with this drought is teaching us a few lessons that I want to share:

First lesson: DO NOT RESTRICT THE SYSTEM EVER.

We try to keep every animal grazing and gaining weight at a good rate. Keeping the cattle gaining well saved us from accumulating a large number of beeves and being desperate later.

It gives more options also. We sell direct on the rail, but if quality or finishing degree is not good enough we have the option to sell on the hoof. (We have not used this alternative during the last two years.)

Second lesson: KEEP ALFALFA IN YOUR PASTURES.

The only forage left on the farm that keeps consistent production is alfalfa. All perennial grasses died and the summer annuals (Sorghum Sudan and corn) we planted look like frozen plants or grow slowly.

We have stated to graze these resources 60 days after planting when usually we should be on them in 45 days.

If it does not rain soon, winter annuals will be planted late and their production will be half of a normal winter annual pasture.

Therefore, we rely on the legume pastures to keep producing into fall as late as possible.

Third lesson: HIGH QUALITY HAY IS GOLD.

During mid summer we finished on alfalfa pasture and high-quality hay (about half of the steers’ diet was hay).

Now in late summer we are making use of the Sudan and corn pastures which keeps the steers at a good rate of gain.

Fourth lesson: TRADE IN THE NOT-SO-GOOD HAY.

Forecasting the drought last fall, we kept all the mid to bad quality hay until late winter and early spring.

When the drought started to hit we sold the hay like water in a desert and got excellent prices for it. This produced enough money to pay for supplemental wheat mids (which we fed during winter) almost on a pound to pound basis.

(Wheat middlings will not meet the North American grass fed protocol.)

Fifth lesson: STORE SUPPLEMENT FEEDS WITH FINISHING QUALITY.

Within our program (undifferentiated commodity beef) we decided that the best way to maintain gains was to complement the available forage with a highly digestible price-competitive supplement and our reserves of high-quality hay.

We bought enough supplement to help through the shortage of winter annuals and push us into spring. All animals had access to winter annuals (cereal oats) and had about 4 lb or high quality alfalfa hay and 4 lb of supplement feed (wheat middlings).

Note: DO NOT HALT THE SYSTEM PREMATURELY.

We believe that early planning is needed to avoid halting the system.

Halting your forage chain and going into a restriction mode is a sure ticket to an agony tour.

Getting out or selling out is of great loss (economically and emotionally). However, if the system backbone is weak, an orderly retreat may be the best option.

For more than two years, normal spring and summer rains have not come.

However, we have had little sprinkles in our region, which helped the alfalfa pastures resume growth in spring and after each grazing.

At the onset of spring last year, we had already finished and sold all the heifers (120 heads) and kept the steers growing at a good pace. Feeding the supplemental feed in winter helped to sustain high gains.

For the steers, having produced half of the weight gain during winter, the finishing phase during spring and early summer was easy and allowed us to sell more than half of the steer stock (210 head).

In mid summer we fed hay again on the third grazing of the alfalfa pastures, which kept yielding good gains.

We expect to have finished and sold 80% of the steers left during the remaining summer and fall (110 head).

Fall is likely to be a dry period too, because of the lack of soil moisture.

Despite the reduced production of summer annuals, not even half of a normal year, we have not lost money.

Selling the medium quality hay was a good decision and made us money. It was cleanup cut and we did not have a use for it.

We expect to carry into winter about 70 animals and, with the fall rains we will be in place to receive a new calf crop (360 head).

An issue to deal with this summer and fall is preserving enough alfalfa pasture to stock our 350 to 400 bales of reserve hay.

IN SUMMARY

In a finishing program, always emphasize performance per animal over performance per acre.

Weigh cattle (a sample if too many) periodically to monitor gains (every 30 to 45 days) and how your forage chain is working.

Watch for parasites.

Reduce stress factors to a minimum (handling, checking, loading).

Have a sales plan/chart.

Make proper pasture grazing management a priority.

Do not over-graze the legume/grass pastures. Use MiG while watching the plant.

Many systems lose their perennial pastures, drift towards all annuals and collapse.

Establish new perennial legume&grass pastures in early fall if it will protect the forage chain backbone.

Do not re-stock without a plan for at least six months following a drought.

(Anibal Pordomingo’s Argentine grass finishing farm is at the same latitude and rainfall as Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer

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