Oklahoma State University Extension specialists have some retrospective on the historic drought that swept through the plains a decade ago and are learning how it can benefit producers in today’s similar climate.
Cattle and livestock
OSU Extension livestock marketing specialist Derrell Peel offered the following takeaways on drought response:
- Abusing pastures, especially native range, slows recovery when the drought is over and may impact productivity for years.
- Pasture and grazing management is even more critical during drought, not only to maintain forage resources, but also to avoid problems with prussic acid, nitrates and toxic plant consumption by cattle.
- Keeping more cows than ranchers can reasonably manage leads to delayed losses in reproductive performance and extends drought costs beyond the dry years.
- Bringing in hay from multiple locations can lead to weed issues in pastures.
- When cattle numbers decline, the market will respond with dramatic and volatile price signals that prompt producer action.
- The 2011-2014 drought resulted in record-high breeding animal and feeder cattle prices followed by a dramatic price crash.
Dave Lalman, OSU Extension beef cattle specialist, said even though cattle numbers dropped significantly in Oklahoma and Texas during the last drought, liquidation improved the overall quality of the national cow herd.
“The drought led to aggressive culling, resulting in more rapid progress in some traits, such as temperament, udder structure and productivity,” Lalman said. “At the same time, severe drought conditions stimulated widespread interest in creating a cow herd that is a better match to local ranch conditions."
Those conditions, in terms of precipitation, have been well above average since about 1983. From the consumer perspective, cattle are a lot better than they were 30 years ago.
“The industry had successfully selected for cattle with increased growth, carcass weight and marbling, but it wasn’t as focused on matching cattle to their forage resources. The 2011 drought changed all that,” he said.
Keeping cows that can adapt to their environment, particularly a dry climate, is important in tough years, Lalman said. Other takeaways from the last severe drought period include:
- For a commercial cow/calf operation, purchasing seedstock that excel in fertility and fleshing ability without requiring a lot of expensive supplemental feed is critical.
“I don’t care how much genetic potential their 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 fundamental principles of moderate mature size, moderate genetic potential for milk production, good fleshing ability on grass and good feet has a much higher probability of thriving in tough environments and through drought periods.
- Reduce the stocking rate and work to develop a grazing system less reliant on purchased or harvested hay. In 1980, Oklahoma produced about three-fourths ton of hay for every beef cow. Today, the state produces two-and-a-half tons of hay for every beef cow. The system exposes cow/calf producers to more risk and forces excessive destocking when it doesn’t rain.
“I think 2011 and 2012 made an impression that will last,” Lalman said. “A lot of serious producers took note and are better prepared today with cows that are a better match to their environment, improved grazing systems, a lower stocking rate and an emergency fund of good quality hay stored in a barn. There’s just a lot more people taking precautions.”
Brett Carver, OSU regents professor and wheat genetics chair, said it’s a survival of the fittest as he and the OSU Wheat Improvement Team sift through thousands of wheat genetic lines every year to develop new varieties. OSU research showed the germplasm Showdown stood out during its formative years when drought was a major factor.
“From 2011 to 2014, Showdown as an experimental line was drought resistant by nature, and those genetics are fixed. They don’t change,” he said. “Showdown packs a punch against 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 in which disease epidemics can be equally devastating as chronic drought stress.
“There’s no model genotype for what we’ll need 10 years from now,” he said. “We give a variety five years of testing once it’s been identified and look for maturity and adaptation patterns that fit both extremes.”