“It’s just been so dry…”
“… no significant rain event in 11 months…”
“Once we make it through this drought…”
“… surface water has completely dried up.”
In case you haven’t heard, there’s a pretty significant drought on across a big chunk of the U.S. Texas has been hit particularly hard, so much so that drought felt like the unofficial theme of the Texas A&M Beef Cattle Short Course, which took place on the campus in College Station, Texas, Aug. 1-3. Many presentations focused on what producers are doing – or should be doing – to properly manage their land and cattle during one of the most prolonged stretches of drought in the state’s history.
“Drought begets drought,” said meteorologist Brian Bledsoe during his presentation on the long-range weather forecast in the U.S. “Our goal here is to give you some tools in your risk toolbox that you didn’t have before to better cope with these situations.”
One of the most commonly referenced methods at the short course for succeeding amid drought was reducing stocking rate. Presenters repeatedly acknowledge that while drastically reducing herd size may be a tough pill to swallow for a lot of ranchers, it may be the best solution for long-term sustainability.
“On average, we are overstocked,” said Jason Smith, Texas A&M AgriLife beef cattle specialist. “As cattle producers, we are grass farmers, and we need to adjust our stocking rates to promote grass and soil health. We need to avoid ‘take-take-take’ agriculture. If all we do is take from the land, there’s only so much it can do for us and our cattle.”
During a panel discussion among four producers, Texas A&M Extension Livestock Specialist and rancher Ron Gill advised against lapsing into a line of thinking of “doing things this way because this is the way we’ve always done it,” especially when it comes to grazing.
“Grazing needs to be managed appropriate for the present situation, not historical precedent,” he said.
One consensus opinion that each member of the panel expressed was that many ranchers may be best served in these difficult times by aggressively culling and radically paring down their herd size. The recommendation was even made for some smaller-scale operations to completely liquidate their herds and get back into the game in a few years when the environmental and economic climates are better suited to cattle production.
“We often talk about maximizing what the land can do in relation to supporting cattle,” said rancher Stephen Diebel in the same panel discussion. “What we really need to aim for is an optimum number of cattle on that range to get the best and longest-term productivity.”
In his talk aimed at managing pastures prior to, during and after drought, Larry Redmon, a Texas A&M professor of soil and crop sciences, concurred with Smith’s analysis.
“If your pasture is in good shape to begin with,” Redmon said, “it recovers much more quickly, even after extreme drought, which about 85 percent of Texas is in right now.”
Redmon addressed the concern he believes is on a lot of cattlemen’s minds: All this talk of preparation is nice, but my ground is in rough shape now; how do I recover it with no sign of rain in the forecast? His first suggested step: Keep what cover you can on the ground. The more producers can slow down the overland velocity of flowing water, the more water will percolate into the soil and be there when forage plants need it.
“Grazing to the ground is difficult to recover from,” said Redmon. “Leave forage in your pasture so that the limited moisture you do receive doesn’t run off into the ravine or down the creek to the neighbor’s place.”
Of course, the goings-on in College Station weren’t all doom and gloom. The excitement and camaraderie that accompany any gathering of cattle people were present, and hope and confidence lined every hard-to-hear truth and harsh reality. The impressive standard ranchers in Texas and across the U.S. have set for themselves – and almost always lived up to – was summed up nicely by Smith in his day two presentation:
“The science overwhelmingly tells us that cattle absolutely have a positive effect on the environment in the U.S.,” he said. “Nowhere in the world is there a safer and higher-quality food supply. Part of that is regulation; a bigger part is the pride our producers take in the product they present to the public.”