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Poor Management Leads to 3 Year Effect of Drought

10 July 2012

US - Livestock producers who fail to properly manage the drought could find themselves dealing with the consequences long after the rains return, says a Purdue Extension beef specialist.

Exceptionally high temperatures and extremely low rainfall have combined to stress livestock and reduce their feed supplies. Producers can take steps to manage a situation that might cost some money now but could pay off in big ways in the long run.

"The tail on this can be pretty long if we don't manage things right in a drought year," Ron Lemenager said. "One thing that I think is really important for producers to consider this year is body condition. If you use condition scores of these cows as a barometer of where you're at nutritionally, we can't do much about the heat or drought, but we can make sure we don't have any nutritional deficiencies."

In a drought year, forages are low in both quality and quantity, which can leave cows thin and undernourished. Less-than-optimal body conditions can have reproductive consequences not only this year, but next year as well.

Heat stress coupled with poor nutrition can create a double whammy by lowering oocyte and sperm quality, as well as embryo survival if fertilisation does occur, Mr Lemenager said.

"The environmental conditions we are experiencing have ratcheted stress forward into the heart of the breeding season for those that calve in the spring, meaning it's very probable we'll see more open cows than normal this fall," he said.

Mr Lemenager said the likely increase in open cows this year means producers need to pregnancy-check cows to minimise the use of expensive feeds. When forages are in short supply, there is little reason for producers to feed non-productive animals. Instead, they can consider marketing culled cows earlier than normal to take advantage of higher market prices.

"If we're short on forage we have the option of sliding by, but if cows are thin going into the fall, fewer will be bred, calves will be lighter at weaning time this year and fewer calves will be born next year," Mr Lemenager said. "Then, if cows are thin heading into next breeding season, fewer cows will be bred and colostrum quality will be lower, meaning a lower calf survival rate which affects productivity in years two and three."

To avoid the three-year "tail," he said producers might need to pay the price now to supplement feed and make sure cows are healthy and in moderate body condition. Healthy cows will breed better and can shorten the time producers face fallout from the drought.

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