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Options to reduce stocking rates

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Drought conditions are persisting across much of the U.S., especially in the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Although adequate soil moisture has kept some areas out of drought, portions of the Midwest and the West have received well below normal spring and summer precipitation, as well as above normal spring and summer temperatures.  

These drought conditions have severely impacted range and pasture production, causing cattle producers some heartache.

Forage production and precipitation

According to University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension Beef Educator Aaron Berger and UNL Extension Beef Systems Educator Jack Arterburn, the amount of forage production on cool-season-dominated pasture and rangeland is highly correlated to precipitation and soil moisture during the months of April, May and June. 

“If adequate soil moisture is not present during this period, vegetation will not be able to fully express its growth potential, leading to reduced forage production and necessitating stocking rate reduction and alternative winter feeding strategies,” Berger and Arterburn say. 

On the other hand, the two Extension specialists note for rangelands dominated with warm-season grasses, precipitation in June and July is important for forage growth.

“Once the vegetation’s rapid growth window has passed, additional precipitation may not contribute significantly to additional plant growth,” they explain. 

Because of this, Berger and Arterburn published an article in UNL’s July BeefWatch newsletter to discuss some options producers might consider as they start thinking about reducing stocking rates because they are going to be short on grass. 

Proactive planning

“Proactive management with dry and drought conditions is the best option for dealing with reduced forage production. Acting early and implementing drought plans will help to ensure rangelands and pastures are able to respond when moisture conditions improve,” say Berger and Arterburn.

They go on to explain one of the most important things to consider when proactively planning for drought conditions is making timely management decisions.  To do this, they believe producers need to establish key dates to take action if specific precipitation amounts have not been received.  

“Because forage production is highly correlated with available soil moisture and temperatures, trigger dates for drought management actions can be identified by understanding the average monthly precipitation and forage base composition for warm or cool season grasses, for a specific rangeland area,” they explain.

“When dry conditions reduce forage production, grazing animal demand must also be reduced accordingly. When determining the reduction in grazing demand, producers need to keep in mind perennial grass plants need to have adequate leaf area remaining after grazing to promote grassland resilience and support future plant health and vigor,” add Berger and Arterburn.

They continue, “The amount of residual vegetation needed, following grazing, does not decrease during drought conditions. Reducing grazing demand means reducing the amount of forage harvested by the grazing animals. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.”

Selling early

“The bottom line is that producers need to reduce demand, which usually comes down to reducing the number of cattle on their ranch,” states Arterburn in UNL’s BeefWatch podcast discussing the article.

One way Berger and Arterburn say this can be accomplished is by selling cattle that might normally be sold in the fall, earlier.

“Yearling, non-pregnant heifers, cows and any other problem animals slated to be sold this fall can be marketed earlier,” Berger and Arterburn say. 

“Producers should consider preg checking their cattle earlier, so if they have open cows and heifers they can get them off their ranch and have more grazing opportunities for the pregnant females,” adds Arterburn, who encourages producers to use newer preg checking technologies to accomplish this. 

“Some of these newer technologies, such as ultrasounding or blood testing, can detect pregnancy as soon as 30 days after breeding,” he explains. “They may be an added expense, but they may pay for themselves by identifying non-pregnant animals early, which allows producers to get those open animals off their ranches sooner.”

Another way producers might go about decreasing stocking rates is by utilizing production records to cull cows that underperform, have structural issues, such as bad feet, large teats and poor dispositions, according to Berger and Arterburn.

Drylotting cattle

“Another option is to look at feeding strategies instead of just getting rid of animals,” Arterburn states. “This can decrease the number of grazing animals by moving them into a drylot/feeding situation.”

Both Arterburn and Berger note bred yearlings are often easier to manage in a drylot than cows with calves. They also mention UNL has published several years of research on feeding cow/calf pairs in a drylot, if producers are more interested in this option.

“One last scenario is weaning calves earlier and feeding them in a drylot,” Arterburn says. “If producers decide to go this route, they need to keep in mind earlier weaned calves need a high-quality diet so they continue gaining.” 

“Early weaning reduces forage demand from the calf and reduces cow nutrient requirements. By reducing nutrient requirements, low-quality pasture or forage is often adequate to meet the nutrient needs of a cow in adequate body condition and the first trimester of pregnancy,” Berger and Arterburn explain.

They further explain, depending on the size and age of the calf, for every three days a calf is weaned, it will provide approximately one extra day of forage for a cow. 

If producers decide to drylot their cattle, no matter their stage of production, Berger and Arterburn note they need to consider the availability of feedstuffs and infrastructure.  

“Producers need to keep in mind the options they have for fall and winter feed resources,” says Berger. “I’ve heard reports stating hay is already going to be less than average in terms of production, especially on dry lands but also on irrigated lands.”

Berger and Arterburn state, “Producers need to plan now to secure alternative feed options for this fall and winter if rangeland and pasture is the primary feed resource. Acting early means there are often more options available in terms of alternative grazing or feed resources.” 

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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