Sort & Cull

Burning Daylight

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst

Although cattle ranchers are best known as masters of the long game (i.e., visionary orienteers that routinely machete their way through the dense jungle, separating bred heifers from marketable yearlings), they are also required from critical time to critical time to shift decision-making into road gear and quickly stop burning daylight.

That may sound a little too John Wayne for some, but I think the phrase pretty well sums up how short-term problems in the complicated process of beef production can screw up the very best of long-term planning. Indeed, many cow-calf producers may soon be facing a serious need for accelerated decision-making relative to pasture conditions and summer feed.

Needless to say, the second quarter for grass farmers is off to a strange, strange start. On one hand, much of the Northern Plains continues to fight deep snow and frigid temperatures. Theoretically, regional pastures could benefit from the eventual melting of the snowpack. Yet without warming temps, the slow growth of early grass could make turn-out in some areas problematic.

Furthermore, given the usual weather clock seen so far, I worry that cows, pairs and yearlings might be stressed from cool conditions to blistering heat faster than you can say "collusion" or "fake news."

Of course, ranchers across the Southern Plains are facing another type of speed bump on the road to grazing potential: the deepening potholes of serious drought. The latest wave of dangerously dry conditions has descended on more than a dozen states across the country. The largest band stretches across the Southwest and includes parts of southern California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.

Another ominous metric of ranch country nervousness and possible vulnerability is the hay market. The price of good-quality alfalfa hay has consistently climbed higher since 2018 began. Over the last three months, chopped hay delivered to feedlots has increased by 4% in Nebraska, 14% in Texas and 18% in Oklahoma.

Yes, much can change over the next 30-45 days. But you might want to clean your rose-colored glasses and give your pony a kick if the building threats of herd liquidation and greater feedlot placement over the next several months just seem too unseasonal.

This may not be a good year to bet too heavily on long-term trends.

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