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Extension Education: Critical Dates for Livestock Producers

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

From the title of this article series, “Management Following Drought,” we might be accused of being optimists. Yes, 2013 could turn out to be another drought year, but the cards have only been partially dealt, and the most important part of the hand will be dealt from now until the first of June.

Members of UW Extension’s Range team will be writing articles over the next few weeks providing you research-based information and tools to aid in your decision making as we embark on the 2013 growing season following a historical drought in 2012.

Critical dates

What are the critical dates for decision making related to stocking rate on your ranch?

We want to challenge you with what we feel are three critical dates for decision making on the ranch. The relative importance of each will depend on the location of your ranch and if you use runoff water for irrigation.

April 1 is time to test the waters. What are the soil moisture conditions on your ranch? What is your carryover forage supply from the previous year? How is the snowpack looking in the watershed that you rely on? The relative importance of this last question will vary greatly from ranch to ranch. What is the long range forecast for precipitation?

May 1 certainly carries more weight than the April 1 date. How has the moisture situation played out in April? What is the likelihood of significant precipitation in the next 10 days? Snowpack? Depending on the answers to these questions now is the time to start responding with your stocking decisions. Perhaps plans are made to reduce some stock numbers or arrange for another place for them to go. The wheels driving activities should be turning!

By June 1, we are really nearing the end of the story for how your grass year will look. If the range hasn’t received meaningful moisture up until now it will almost certainly be a poor year. Generally moisture received after this date has less impact on cool season grasses because temperatures are often too high for efficient growth of these plants and they are probably approaching maturity.

Making a plan

Each of these three critical dates should be tied to stocking decisions on the ranch. This plan must be written down. Too often we let our optimism or emotions drive these critical decisions. Gather your ranch team around a table and write down a plan that is tied to the critical dates on your ranch. When the time comes to act, everyone will be on the same page and ready to respond.

One important aspect of being able to respond to the signals that these critical dates provide is the importance of having a management system that can be flexible in its stocking. Having only a cow-calf herd that requires all the grass your ranch provides in “average” years makes it extremely difficult to respond during the dry years. As a hedge against drought and markets, flexibility needs to be incorporated into the production system. 

An arguably useful rule is that perhaps 60 percent of the average stocking level should be in animals that would rarely be sold while the other 40 percent should be animals that can be sold in response to impending forage shortages or maintained when forage supplies are adequate. Retaining stocker cattle, buying stockers, retaining or buying cull cows, or taking pasture cattle can be useful additions in good forage conditions. There are a few other livestock system changes that can be useful in preparing for or adjusting to drought such as calving dates and early weaning.

We are all hoping for excellent moisture conditions as the spring story begins to unfold. We encourage you to focus your management time and energy on the things that you can control. Making a stocking decision plan that is written down and tied to the critical dates on your ranch is one of those things. 

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