Livestock Update, September 2007 - Drought Strategies: Herd Inventory Decisions

By Dr. Scott P. Greiner, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist, Virginia Tech. Producers in many regions in Virginia are evaluating strategies to cope with drought.
calendar icon 24 September 2007
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Successfully getting through the drought challenge will best be accomplished by applying a combination of strategies such as alternative forage and pasture management practices, feeding alternative feeds, strategic cattle management practices (such as early weaning), and herd inventory reduction. Each of these strategies must be evaluated on a case by case basis, and their implementation will vary for each producer based on their feed inventory and future needs, as well as impact of drought both short and long-term on their operation.

The prospects of having to reduce cattle numbers is a harsh reality that must be considered, although a strategy that none of us like to face. Considerations involving herd reduction need to be evaluated in concert with their impact on both viability and profitability, and the severity of herd reduction will depend largely on the extent of feed and forage shortage, and cost of purchased or supplemental feed. Long-term, the immediate benefit of herd reduction vs. cost of feed/forage to maintain inventory needs to be evaluated against the cost of rebuilding the herd at a future date along with the reality that total herd income will be reduced in future years as a result of reduced cow numbers.

Should herd numbers need to be reduced, careful consideration needs to be given as to which animals to sell. The following provides steps to consider in when making these tough decisions:

  1. Open Cows- The logical group for herd reduction includes open cows. Open cows (regardless of age) will not generate revenue through calf sales in the coming year, and consume forage that could be used to support other animals in the herd. Pregnancy checking the cow herd has always been an economically sound management practice. Given the tight feed supplies and cost of supplemental feed, working with a veterinarian to identify open females will provide significant return on investment and should be the first step in herd reduction.
  2. Heifer Calves- While the potential replacement heifers from the current calf crop potentially represent the best genetics in the herd, heifer calves are also 18 months from production and two years from weaning their first calf and generating revenue as a cow. Forage and feed requirements to develop a growing heifer are substantial. Producers faced with having to purchase feed in order to maintain replacement heifers should consider the cost of these purchased feeds compared to opportunity to sell heifers as feeder calves and invest sale proceeds in replacements at a later date. The same consideration applies when limited feed inventories force a choice between selling mature cows vs. replacement heifers. Additionally, drought strategies which increase heifer development costs need to be evaluated closely as they may impact lifetime profitability of these females. The opportunity to keep additional heifers from future calf crops and/or buy replacements sometime in the future also need to be considered when contemplating what to do with the current heifer calves.
  3. Other Females- If conditions necessitate selling productive females, candidates would be those cows which generate the lowest returns. Generally, these are cows which produce less pounds of saleable calf. Since calf value is primarily determined by calf weight, cows calving late in calving season may become candidates for herd reduction, particularly those which consistently calve late. With a good cow record keeping system, poor-producing cows and problem cows can be identified and culled when warranted. Old cows reaching the end of their productive life would also be candidates. Hopefully, one will not be forced to disperse many productive females.
  4. Bulls- The limited number of bulls maintained by most operations suggests reducing herd inventory through selling bulls would have limited impact on total herd forage and feed demands. However, bulls should be closely evaluated for progeny performance and those which have not met expectations should be sold.

In summary, reductions in herd inventory may be necessary along with other strategies to cope with drought in order for operations to remain profitable and sustainable. If cattle inventories need to be reduced, decisions regarding which animals to sell should be made while considering their impact both short and long-term compared to alternative strategies.

September 2007

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