BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (DTN) -- Short supplies and bullish cattle prices today make the idea of culling viable females from the herd nothing less than cringe-worthy. Cattle producers are in an expansion mindset, but Mother Nature isn't cooperating in many areas.
Lori Hallowell, a cattle producer at Palmyra, Nebraska, said she and her husband, Paul, have already sold about 10% of her cow herd due to dry conditions, and she's not going to be able to bring home all the heifers she has in a development program this year. For now, she's holding the line with about 150 pairs, while hoping dry weather and lack of water won't force her to cut into those numbers.
"I've not gotten to the point where I have had to sell my pairs, but that could happen," she told DTN. "I tell people that by nature I'm a cow collector. It's really hard for me to sell a productive cow."
A fourth-generation rancher on HJ Bar Ranch, Hallowell has used genomic testing for more than two decades to track her herd and has plentiful data on every animal. At this point, she said nearly all of her culling since last fall is drought-related.
"We've had to make a few hard decisions," she said of the culls. "It's easy if a cow is open. But I keep cows if they are productive, and it's hard to let them go. I have some that are 13, 14, and even 15 years old in my herd. They still breed back fast and have great calves."
But like a lot of producers, Hallowell says she is short on grass and hay. As if that weren't bad enough, she is looking at water issues for the third year in a row.
"Our ponds, our surface water, is depleted," she said. "This will be the third summer we've been dealing with that. We can dig 120 to 150 feet here and not hit water. My husband, Paul, is really clever and we are pumping a little water where we can with car batteries, but he's literally hauling thousands of gallons of water every day to keep this herd going. A mama cow drinks 25 gallons of water every day, so that is a huge factor right now."
Hallowell also sells beef direct to consumers, and says if she had her choice, she'd be in expansion mode right now, because there is a lot of demand for beef.
"I've sold a lot of bred heifers because it's not realistic for me to keep them right now. But in my blood, I want to be expanding the herd. I know though this is a business and I have to make good business decisions for the long-term good."
WEATHER PATTERNS STILL UNCERTAIN
DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick is watching the U.S. Drought Monitor, and he's aware a lot of people are comparing current weather patterns to those of 2012, when conditions were especially severe in July.
"This year is drier than 2012 was, for many areas. And because we are dry now, there's this concern that if it stays dry it will be like 2012 or worse," said Baranick. "I can see why a lot of people feel that way, but right now the forecast doesn't point to that. The next two weeks don't look completely dry, and there are going to be opportunities for precipitation. But the models are inconsistent as to where to place precipitation over the next couple of weeks. Every time we see a new model run, we see changes. Right now, the best chance for rain I see is in the Northern Plains for the week of June 19. There's a system expected to stall there. That system may then migrate into the Midwest and bring that area a chance of some precipitation."
CULLING DECISIOINS MOVING FORWARD
University of Missouri Extension beef nutritionist Eric Bailey said this is an especially critical time for cow-herd owners who are making culling decisions. He stressed it's more important now than ever to match cows' needs to available grass, regardless of where an operation is located.
He advised careful consideration as to which grass eaters go first when culling the cow herd. The first cut may always be straightforward -- open cows and otherwise poor performers. But after that it gets harder and harder.
"Next cull lactating cows with bad disposition, bad eyes, bad feet, or bad udders," said Bailey. After that he urged producers look at removing cows with blemishes or poor-doing calves. The ultimate goal should always be to keep the best genetics in the herd as long as it's feasible, which means when a lack of feed or water forces selling.
Bailey added that typically in states that rely on cool-season forages, like Missouri with tall fescue, two-thirds of forage will come in the spring growth cycle; one-third in the fall. That fall growth is when winter stockpiling should happen in those areas.
But in places like Nebraska, where Hallowell ranches, peak growth period for forages is now. Those grasses, Bailey noted, won't slow down until August, assuming they get enough moisture.
Every operation is different, but this year rain will clearly continue to be a dictating factor in herd management decisions.
"Producers who last the longest in the cow-calf business are not those who make the most money in good years," Bailey said. "They are those who lose the least in bad years."
Victoria Myers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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