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Drought management may include decreasing herd sizes, says Fischer

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With the possibility that drought may continue through 2013, Colorado State University Livestock Extension Specialist Michael Fisher encouraged producers to look at numerous options for managing both their land and animals during drought. 

While many ranchers may choose to do whatever they can to keep cattle, Fisher also noted that selling cattle by deep culling or liquidating is also an option.


Some ranchers may decide to cull deep into their herd to save grass and their most productive cows. 

“I would recommend tapping into your brain trust for this,” Fisher said. “Get advice from people you trust. The damage you do this year to your grass from the drought, you may still be dealing with 10 to 20 years from now.”

“Cattle resources are replaceable,” he reminded ranchers.

When prioritizing for culling, Fisher marked eight strategies. Top priority cows to cull include cows without a calf; wild or mean cows, fence-blind cows or fence-crawlers; and cows lacking herding instinct that turn and run in the opposite direction and take others with them when cattle are gathered.

Next, Fisher marked replacement heifers for culling, as they have the highest nutritional needs, lightest calves and are the hardest to get rebred. 

“Look at it like a large business that was just told they were laying off 170 people. You don’t hire young, inexperienced employees at that point,” Fisher said.

Pregnancy status, including any cows that aren’t bred or are late-bred, and physical status are also important. Ranchers should look at the cow’s teeth, udder and structural evaluation, as well as body condition score. Fisher said he likes to have three people he trusts evaluate and score the cattle, and then he averages the scores to determine which animals to cull.

Next, he encouraged ranchers to evaluate records from the last two to three years to cull poor producers, lastly culling those cows over the age of eight and under four years of age.


“What is left should be your most productive cows,” Fisher said. “If culling that deep in the herd isn’t enough, you may have to look at liquidation strategies.”

“Look at the cow market and have a strategy where your income will come from for the next few years,” he said. 

Producers should also consult with their banker and accountant so they are aware of their financial position and any tax issues that may arise. If a federal declaration of drought has been made for the area the producer lives in, it may make that producer eligible for capital gains tax deferrals and low interest repayment loans. 

“Liquidating is a difficult decision,” Fisher said. “A rancher spends years building the genetic potential of his herd and has to weigh whether it is worth it to save the grass and buy feed.” 

“It is also likely he will sell those cattle for less than what it will cost to buy them back in a few years,” he added.

On the positive side, liquidation can be used as a management tool. 

It can allow for pasture rest, a change in direction of the herd, an opportunity to change fence patterns to better utilize grass, ranch revitalization through new enterprises and diversification, and transition to the next generation so the older generation can retire.

Brain Trust

To ease the weight of decisions brought on by drought, Colorado State University Livestock Extension Specialist Michael Fisher said ranchers should build a brain trust made up of people they trust, such as a spouse and family members, accountant, banker, extension agent, veterinarian and Natural Resources Conservation Service range conservation person. 

“The brain trust can help you make decisions because they can look at things more objectively,” he said.

For producers lacking a drought plan, but finding themselves in a drought situation, Fisher recommends going to their brain trust for advice and input.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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