Recent rainfalls across most of the nation’s key cattle grazing areas are greening up pastures and refilling farm ponds, fueling optimism among ranchers that they may soon begin the difficult process of rebuilding herds decimated by years of drought.
The recent rains that have soaked the Great Plains and most of the nation’s cattle grazing region has spurred talk of rebuilding the herd.
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“We have had enough rain to at least change our attitude,” said Kansas cattleman Ken Grecian said. “We are not out of the woods by any means, but we are green again.”
Grecian, who ranches northwest of Hays, said he culled during the drought about 40 percent of his herd, sending to the auction barn more than 150 cows and calves to stretch his grass as far as he could. His ranch can support about 350 cows in a normal season, but it may be years before he restocks his ranch to those herd numbers again.
He now plans to keep the female calves from this year’s calf crop, rather than sell them in the fall. To rebuild some of the genetics lost by selling so much of his herd, he artificially inseminated 100 of his cows this season in a move to get the quality up as he rebuilds the herd.
“I am a lot more optimistic, but we are not going to go out and buy cows,” Grecian said. “We will grow back into it, so our grass has a chance to rest.”
It’s likely to take the beef industry years to recover from the widespread drought. Cows have a nine-month gestation period, and it can take up to two years after calves are born for them to grow big enough for slaughter. The time needed to repair drought-damaged pastures will only extend that timetable because ranchers must have grass for grazing before they can add animals.
“I think it will take us three years to get back to the numbers we were at – it might take a little longer than that,” Grecian said.
It takes time for the grass to grow a healthy root system and it takes time for thin grass stands to recover enough to support a full stocking rate of cattle.
“My approach – and I have done it before in other droughts – is more of a plan to improve our resources back to the point that they were when we went into a drought,” Grecian said.
While the nation’s western grazing region – an area that includes New Mexico, California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana – have had worse pasture conditions this year than last, this region accounts for only 10 to 12 percent of the nation’s beef cow herd. The parts of the country that encompass the vast majority of the grazing lands for cattle have seen improving pasture conditions, said Glynn Tonsor, an Extension beef specialist at Kansas State University.
Pastures in the Great Plains of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas – where 30 percent of the cows graze – are in better shape. The Southern Plains of Oklahoma and Texas, with 20 percent of the cows, are also doing better than last year.
“The week-to-week cow slaughter numbers were still fairly high 90 days ago, but more recently they have been down,” Tonsor said. “There is less forced liquidation – the cows that are going to market now are kind of by choice. It is no longer the case that there isn’t pasture for them to be on.”
Ranchers also will have more feed available to carry their cows through the next winter.
Steve Hessman, hay market reporter for the Agriculture Department’s Dodge City office, said not only is there a better supply of forage and feed crops, the alfalfa crop itself is doing much better, and this cutting of alfalfa is expected to be the biggest. While there will be more tons of hay available, however, the quality is more questionable because there has been so much rain that the crop has bloomed and is past its prime for cutting into the good quality dairy hay.
“There is going to be a better feed supply than we were looking at earlier in the year, that is for sure,” Hessman said. “You probably are not going to see as much culling of cow herds this fall – anything that is pregnant they should retain, whereas in the past they simply didn’t have feed or it was too expensive to keep them.”