Applying drought lessons 10 years later
Media contact: Gail Ellis | Editorial Communications Coordinator | 405-744-9152 | [email protected]
The effects of the drought are devastating, but agricultural data collected during such challenging times is a valuable educational tool.
Specialists from the Oklahoma State University Extension take a look back at the historic drought that swept the prairie a decade ago and how it may benefit producers in today’s similar climate.
cattle and livestock
OSU Extension livestock marketing specialist Derrell Peel offered the following drought response takeaways:
- Pasture abuse, particularly in native ranges, slows post-drought recovery and can hamper productivity for years.
- Grazing and grazing management is even more important during a drought, not only to conserve forage resources, but also to avoid problems with hydrocyanic acid, nitrates and the consumption of toxic plants by cattle.
- Keeping more cows than ranchers can reasonably handle results in delayed reproductive performance losses and prolongs drought costs beyond the dry years.
- Bringing in hay from multiple locations can cause weed problems in pastures.
- When cattle counts fall, the market will respond with dramatic and volatile price signals that prompt producers to act.
- The 2011-2014 drought resulted in record prices for breeding and beef cattle, followed by a dramatic drop in prices.
Dave Lalman, OSU Extension cattle specialist, said although cattle numbers in Oklahoma and Texas declined significantly during the recent drought, the liquidation has improved the overall quality of the national cow herd.
“The drought led to aggressive culling, which led to faster advances in some traits like temperament, udder structure and productivity,” Lalman said. “At the same time, severe drought conditions have sparked widespread interest in creating a herd of cows that better suits local ranch conditions.”
These precipitation conditions have been well above average since about 1983. From a consumer point of view, cattle are much better than they were 30 years ago.
“The industry had successfully embraced cattle with increased growth, carcass weight and marbling, but was not as focused on matching cattle to their forage resources. The drought of 2011 changed all that,” he said.
During tough years, it’s important to have cows that can adapt to their environment, especially a dry climate, Lalman said. Further insights from the last severe drought period are:
- For a commercial cow/calf operation, purchasing seed that excels in fertility and fertility without the need for a lot of expensive supplemental feed is vital.
“I don’t care how much genetic potential her calves have for growth, carcass yield or marbling, if a cow doesn’t raise a calf, you don’t have a carcass to sell,” Lalman said.
- A cow herd developed with the basic principles of moderate adult size, moderate genetic potential for milk production, good conformation on grass and good feet has a much higher likelihood of thriving in harsh environments and through periods of drought.
- Reduce stocking densities and work towards developing a grazing system that relies less on purchased or harvested hay. In 1980 Oklahoma produced about three quarters of a ton of hay for each beef cow. Today the state produces two and a half tons of hay for every beef cow. The system puts cow/calf producers at greater risk and forces excessive destocking when there is no rain.
“I think 2011 and 2012 left a lasting impression,” Lalman said. “Many reputable producers have taken note of this and are now better prepared with cows more suited to their environment, improved grazing systems, lower stocking densities and an emergency supply of good quality hay stored in a barn. There are just a lot more people taking precautions.”
Brett Carver, OSU Regents Professor and Chair of Wheat Genetics, said it’s survival of the fittest as he and the OSU Wheat Improvement Team sift through thousands of genetic wheat lines each year to develop new varieties. OSU research showed that the germplasm showdown excelled in its formative years, when drought was a major factor.
“From 2011 to 2014, as an experimental line, Showdown was naturally drought resistant and those genetics are set. They don’t change,” he said. “Showdown is a blow to drought.”
While Showdown shows potential as a drought-friendly wheat variety, Carver said wheat breeding involves studying varieties that can withstand a range of intense weather patterns, including the wetter years when disease epidemics can be just as devastating as chronic drought stress.
“There is no model genotype for what we will need in 10 years,” he said. “We test a variety for five years once it’s identified, looking for patterns of maturity and adaptation that fit both extremes.”