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Flexible operation

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Skavdahl Ranch featured in Nebraska Stocker-Yearling Tour

The biggest decision ranchers have to make when faced with drought is to sell cows or buy feed, but the best decision is to create a simple drought plan by building a flexible cattle operation. 

One flexible solution is running a stocker-yearling drought program, which gives producers the ultimate flexibility for grazing. 

Implementing a stocker-yearling program 

Building a stocker-yearling program for an existing cattle operation is an option which provides flexibility without sacrificing capital or genetics. 

When a dry spell arrives and feed runs short, running a stocker or yearling herd allows an operation more flexibility and to maintain focus on the core cow herd. It is also a smart idea as stockers and yearlings are easier to sell than cow/calf pairs, and there is always a market for them. 

According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch website, when drought conditions threaten livestock producers, utilizing a management practice allows for a robust drought contingency and grazing management plan, which should be part of the risk management for any operation.

A proactive approach to drought management is critical to drought survival.

UNL Beef Cattle Nutritionist Travis Mulliniks notes, “Optimizing a herd mix of different animal classes offers different degrees of flexibility in management, and a common recommendation in drought-prone areas stipulates the breeding herd forage demand should be capped at no more than 50 to 70 percent of a ranch’s carrying capacity during average rainfall years.”

“This mixed herd can provide the grazing manager needed flexibility to quickly reduce stocking rates to match the reduced forage available on rangelands during drought years,” Mulliniks explains. 

“A stocker-yearling flexible grazing enterprise may not fit the goals and structure of every cow/calf producer. A yearling operation can increase production costs and financial risk, which may not justify the potential added net returns for a risk-averse producer,” Mulliniks concludes. 

However, he further notes the use of flexible grazers is a management tool producers should consider adding to their operation as part of a drought risk management plan to increase management flexibility and profitability.  

Skavdahl Ranch

In an effort to promote stocker-yearling programs and inform producers of potential benefits during drought years, UNL Extension hosts an annual ranch tour.

This year’s stocker-yearling tour was held on June 29 at the Skavdahl Ranch near Harrison, Neb. 

The Skavdahl Ranch is run by brothers Josh and Jud, their dad Bill and their uncles Jim and Charlie. The family has ranched in Sioux County for generations, and they run cattle from start to finish. 

“Each part of the family has their own operation, but they share labor, equipment and resources,” states Brent Plugge, UNL Extension educator. “A stocker-yearling operation allows them to adjust stocking rates to maintain range quality and their cow herd in dry years.”

Staying ahead

According to Progressive Cattle, Grazing Land Consultant and Founder of American Grazing Lands Services Jim Gerrish recommends ranchers stay ahead of drought by regularly checking the U.S. Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor. 

Individual states also have drought sites, such as the Water Resources Data System and State Climate Office in Wyoming.

Dealing with drought is a continuous issue, and producers are often recovering from one or planning for the next. 

South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension recommends always having a drought management plan. Implementing a written drought management plan creates a practical outline for before, during and after a drought.

SDSU research determined a drought management plan should have a trigger mechanism to determine when stockers and/or yearlings should be marketed. It is best to set triggers early in a drought to maximize forage and restock after drought recovery, rather than attempting to rebuild the genetics in a cow herd. 

Preserving the balance of cattle performance and rangeland health is key to a producer’s yearly success, and it becomes easier when a drought management plan is implemented when preparing for the next drought.

Melissa Anderson is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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