DROUGHT MANAGEMENT FOR BEEF PRODUCERS
Following are some drought cattle management tips. We hope that your region is having a good season and that this article doesn‟t concern you. Unfortunately, droughts are a management challenge that Australian farmers will regularly face. So even if your region is having a good season and this article doesn‟t concern you, it might come in handy if you file it away.
PLANNING FOR DROUGHT
1. Define Objectives
The overriding objective of drought strategies, while always taking into account stock welfare, should be to ensure that the productive resources of the farm- the soil, the capital, and core breeding stock- be managed to allow production to bounce back after the drought. Write down your objectives and put them in a place where they can be regularly reviewed, so that during the drought you don‟t trade-off
long term survival for short term wins.
2. Gather information
Gather information to help you choose rational strategies to achieve your objectives. For example on the extent of the drought, the rate at which it is progressing, the course of previous droughts, and the long-range weather forecast. For each class of livestock on your farm tally numbers and estimate nutrient requirements for now and in the future. Estimate both the quantity and quality of pasture now and in the future. Assess the quantity and quality of supplementary feed you currently own. Gather market information such as current and predicted livestock and feed prices.
3. Evaluate various strategies
Cost out various strategies for droughts of different duration. Include costs associated with regaining the production capacity of the farm, once the drought breaks. For example include restocking or pasture repair costs for the different strategies. Time and labour requirements should also be included in the analysis. Creating a „template‟ evaluation on your computer will make this task much easier. As you receive new information such as a change in the likely feed prices, you can then easily update your analyses, and review strategies.
Some common options include:
a. Selling stock
Selective reduction of stock early in the drought is nearly always an attractive proposition, especially with cattle. It avoids large feeding costs. Prices received are likely to be better because the stock should be in reasonable condition.
The first step should be to run the breeding herd through the yards to pregnancy test and mouth cows and pull out poor performing females. Sell at least any empty females, CFA cows, bad milkers and poor doers.
As the drought progresses, stock should be sold class by class. Which stock to sell next can be decided by asking yourself which types will be easiest to handle during drought, and which are going to be most productive or give the greatest returns after the drought. Start with the finished young stock, then castrate stock, replacement stock and older breeders, until you are left with a nucleus of young, sound, breeding females.
In very bad droughts, unless you‟re a seedstock producer where your genetics are a competitive
advantage for your business, you should consider selling commercial cows too. Having an independent person go through your herd can be valuable to make sure that rational decisions based on economics rather than emotion are made. Current Department of Agriculture drought publications include the advice from some of their senior staff “It‟s a common belief that livestock will be extremely expensive and some classes of stock unprocurable at the end of a drought. Analysis of past major droughts has shown that this has not often been the case.” However, it should be noted that past major droughts were before intramuscular fat EBVs were introduced and significant premiums for marbling genetics (Angus, Shorthorn etc) were seen. If you‟re targeting a market that values marbling and you‟ve
invested in developing the marbling genetics of your cow herd then you need to add this into standard industry budgets re whether to feed your cow herd through the drought. Purchase prices for females with marbling genetics are likely to be much higher than standard industry beef cow forecasts.
b. Production Feeding
Feeding to achieve an objective of maintaining performance of the breeding unit is more common in the beef industry because the longer gestation period for cattle gives a greater chance of the drought breaking than for sheep. And if drought conditions don‟t break, bobby calves can be sold, unlike for young lambs. Nevertheless the cost of maintaining production of breeding females is very high, so this option carries considerable risk.
c. Maintenance Feeding
In a short drought this is likely to be a low cost strategy. However, if the drought is prolonged, it can be very expensive. Be careful that the decision to feed is made on a rational examination of costs and returns rather than based on factors such as the availability of fodder on farm and the level of cash reserves.
Agistment is widely used in regional droughts. Make sure that you have a written agreement. You (or an agent/friend) should also inspect the facilities and the quality and quantity of feed at the agistment property before dispatching stock.
e. Trading Livestock
Trading livestock is not acceptable to many producers because of the loss of the genetic base built up over many years of a breeding program, and the risk of introducing disease. However, the market for livestock during drought can fluctuate widely, and the opportunity often exists to buy one class of stock which is cheaper than another class, while maintaining the same number of stock in terms of dry sheep equivalents. The cash generated can be used to pay for feeding costs.
1. Maintaining a Productive Breeding Herd
If you decide to keep your breeding herd, keep top of mind that the cows‟ feed requirements and
sensitivity to low nutrition vary throughout the year and that the target for a breeding operation is one calf weaned per cow per year.
The seasonal requirements for an autumn calving British breed cow are shown in Figure 1. The energy requirements of the cow calf unit more than double from 2 months before calving to six months after.
Figure 1. Energy requirements of a breeding cow
Figure 4.6 Energy Requirements of a Breeding Cow
Energy Requirements 0
Source: Prograze Manual
To some extent mature cows provide a „buffer‟ in the feeding management of your cattle. If pasture availability is poor, they can be allowed to lose weight at certain stages of the breeding cycle with minimal impact on productivity. However, Department of Natural Resources and Environment
research has clearly demonstrated that both cow condition at calving and level of nutrition between
calving and the end of mating have a substantial effect on cow fertility. Decreased fertility can be a lot more costly than the feed you tried to save in letting their condition drop.
In the tables and graphs below cow condition is described in terms of AUS-MEAT Fat Scores as used
in the Livestock Market Reporting and Auctions Plus. As fat scores cover a wide range of fatness, fat
scores 3 and 4 have been divided into 3L (low) 3H (high) and 4L (low) 4H (high). Fat Score
descriptions are available from the Department of Agriculture.
Table 1. The effects of fat score at calving and low feed level after calving on cow fertility
Fat Score Days Calving to First Cow Cycling Pregnancy Rate %
Heat in first 3 Weeks of
Joining Period %
2 65 58 70
3-4L 45 91 87
4 38 90 86 Based on 4 years data from 120 autumn calving Hereford cows, Hamilton, Victoria. Source: Beef Manager Manual, Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
As condition at calving increases the period from calving to cycling decreases. As the feeding level is
increased post-calving the interval from calving to cycling decreases, particularly for cows with lower
body condition at calving. The range of response that can occur at any given fat score is shown below
in Figure 2. It shows that cows with fat score 4L are less variable in response and are less sensitive to
level of nutrition after calving than cows in fat score 2 or lower.
Figure 2. The relationship between fat score at calving and days to first heat (autumn calving).
Source: Prograze Manual.
Figure 3 below shows appropriate fat score ranges for autumn and spring calving. First calvers and
high producing cows should be at the top of the range. Bear in mind that the cows at the bottom of the
range at calving will be more sensitive to the feed supply after calving.
Figure 3 Target Fat Scores for Cows
Autumn Calving Spring Calving
Source: Prograze Manual
Autumn calving cows in southern Australia shouldn‟t be allowed to fall below fat score 3 at calving.
As well as affecting fertility, cows calving in autumn below score 3 will have reduced calf weaning
rates of 10-15 kg. Because spring calvers should have good feed conditions at joining, their
reproductive performance tends to be less sensitive to fat score at calving. The calving target fat score
for spring calvers is 3. The target fat score for mating is around 3 for both autumn and spring calvers.
After joining, cows are less sensitive to low nutrition and fat score can drop further.
Fat score targets are summarised in Table 2.
Table 2. Target fat scores
Autumn Calving Spring Calving
Point of Calving 3H 3L Joining 3-3L 3 Mid Lactation 3 3 Weaning 3H 3 Source: Prograze Manual
Early pregnancy testing (six to eight weeks after the bulls are taken out) will identify early and late
calvers. This will enable you to fine tune your management to conserve some feed. The early calving
mature cow can afford to calve down in a lower body condition score as she will have plenty of time to
cycle after calving. The later calving cows can be given preferential treatment, to decrease the time
from calving to oestrus.
First calvers should also be run as a separate management group and given preferential treatment as
they have extra nutritional requirements for growth.
Early weaning in drought years can be a major help to get cow conditions to an acceptable level.
If you decide not to sell maiden heifers, mating them at least one cycle earlier than the cow herd will
give them more time between calving and joining to cycle.
2. Identifying Genetics with Constitution
In droughts there will be significant differences observed between animals‟ constitutions. Take note of
cow families or sire lines with good and bad constitutions and refer to these notes when making
selection decisions. Note if there is an association of low condition with high milk and mature cow
weight EBVs for example. Unfortunately droughts are a common occurrence in Australian agriculture
and so selection for constitution is important.
3. Animal health
Treatment for lice and worms is particularly important during drought as nutritional stress will decrease an animal‟s resistance to parasite infestation. Spores of clostridial diseases are present in the soil and are ingested when animals graze close to the ground or contaminate wounds when dust is stirred up. All stock should also be vaccinated to prevent clostridial diseases.
Most grain diets are deficient in sodium and calcium and so supplementation of these minerals is generally necessary. Vitamin A and E deficiencies are also likely during drought. A preventative injection is recommended after two months on dry feed.
The most important animal on the farm to keep healthy is yourself. Decisions to be made during drought are particularly difficult. Maintaining your health so that you make these rationally is critical. Maintaining contact with your friends and healthy relationships with your family and co-workers is important.
Low stock numbers at the end of a drought provide farmers with the opportunity to review enterprise mixes and breeding directions to meet changing market requirements.
A useful measure to judge whether to purchase cattle or breed-up is to look at the return on capital tied up in livestock. If for example, you‟re considering breeders which will return an expected gross margin per head of $300 per year, and the purchase cost of the breeders is $700, then the return on livestock capital is 43%. This return is sufficient to pay interest on borrowings plus some principal, so unless you go back into drought, this example used would show that in the longer term, buying cattle will produce a better cash flow than would breeding-up. However, a cash flow for each of the breeding and purchase decisions would be required to see how long it takes for the purchase option to get in front.
If you choose to breed-up your cow herd then cross-breeding with your cull females has advantages. Cull cows producing calves of a different color is a sound way of ensuring that progeny of cull animals don‟t slip back into your core breeding herd.
1. Stock health
Drought-breaking rains will dramatically change the feed supply. A heart-breaking comment often made by graziers is that they managed to keep their stock alive during the drought, only to suffer losses when the drought broke. To avoid digestive upsets give stock a gradual feed type transition. For example limit pasture access to an hour or two each day initially. Bloat protection where pastures contain a high legume content is important. A booster dose of pulpy kidney is also recommended for stock that haven‟t had their annual 5-in-1 booster.
Acknowledgements: Some of the material in this article is from NSW Agriculture Agnotes