Adding Resilience and Flexibility Adds Opportunity
The stocker segment of the livestock industry does not seem to get as much attention as the cow/calf or feedlot segments these days. This is no doubt due to the fact that less people are currently involved in this segment than have been historically. The most recent statewide survey of livestock producers shows only eight percent of producers identify as cow/yearling operations, while 82 percent identify themselves as cow/calf operations.
However, a lot of recent work across the western U.S. has shown that having the flexibility associated with a stocker enterprise on a ranch can help alleviate the negative impacts of drought years. During drought periods, cow/calf producers are typically forced to liquidate breeding stock to balance herd demand with forage supply.
This strategy is costly for a few reasons.
First, as other producers in the area also are forced to sell cows, cow prices tend to dip, meaning cows are sold at lower values due to the temporary increase in supply. Selling these cows is akin to selling a factory at a loss after spending a lot of money to get it operational.
A second reason selling cows is costly is, after the drought ends, producers are faced with the lag of rebuilding the herd, meaning they typically have to forgo selling heifers to get their breeding stock numbers back to pre-drought levels. This means lower revenues until retained heifers start producing calves. If producers decide to purchase breeding stock, prices are usually elevated due to increased demand, and they end up replacing cows they sold at bargain prices with cows they paid a premium for.
If an operation has a stocker enterprise, cow numbers should be able to be kept at a lower, but more stable, number. The stocker operation is used as the “flex” option. Stocker numbers are increased during the good years and lowered or eliminated in the dry years. Using stockers to balance forage supply and demand eliminates the need to sell breeding stock.
Another nice option of using stockers as the flexible part of the herd is that producers are less likely to hold stockers very long into a drought – especially when compared to the cows they’ve invested considerable time and money to develop. The ability to destock during poor years can help ensure long-term productivity of rangeland resources. Managing the herd adaptively in response to precipitation and productivity can be challenging but is even more so without the ability to easily adjust grazing pressure on an annual basis.
If you are interested in learning more about these topics, University of Wyoming (UW) Extension, Colorado State University Extension (CSU) and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are collaborating on two projects that are evaluating the benefits of both stocker operations and adaptive management.
The first project is a long-term, collaborative, adaptive rangeland management project. This project is unique in that management decisions are driven by a diverse group of stakeholders, similar to a board of directors, aimed at managing for multiple objectives including beef production, drought resilience and wildlife conservation. The project involves a comparison of continuous, season-long grazing and an adaptive, rotational grazing strategy. This project is also evaluating the use of prescribed burning.
This project is in its fourth year, and USDA ARS will host a field day at their Nunn, Colo. station about 30 miles south of Cheyenne on June 27 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. to showcase current findings.
For more information, or to RSVP for a free lunch, either contact myself at firstname.lastname@example.org or Hailey Wilmer at Hailey.Wilmer@ars.usda.gov.
Another joint project aimed at helping to understand and promote stocker operations is just beginning this year. This project looks to build understanding about the challenges and opportunities provided by stocker enterprise and hopes to connect producers that have experience with these operations with those that want to learn more.
Part of this project is to help facilitate the transfer of knowledge but also identify knowledge gaps that researchers at UW, CSU and USDA can help answer. The initial meeting for the Flexible Stocking Summit is scheduled for Sept. 19, also at the Nunn, Colo. station.
Again, if you have any questions regarding this project, feel free to e-mail me or Don Schoderbek at Donald.Schoderbek@colostate.edu.
If you have any interest in either adding a stocker enterprise, discussing the positive potential or pitfalls with others that are interested in getting started or understanding how adaptive grazing strategies compare to continuous season-long grazing, I hope to hear from you.