Spring Drought Management

4/25/2013 5:58:06 AM

Row Crops

While Nebraska was one of the hardest hit states in the 2012 drought, a second year of low moisture is beginning to take shape. Farmers across the state need to begin to plan how their operation can prepare for managing less than ideal conditions.

Charles Shapiro, a University of Nebraska Extension soil scientist in crop nutrition, adds his inputs on how a continuing drought for 2013 could impact farmers across the state and advises on how to prepare a drought management plan.

1) Compared to 2012, how will 2013 be different?
The first year of the drought used stored moisture and whatever moisture came in the form of rain. Going into the 2012 growing season there was normal crop residue, which provides many benefits, especially cooling the soil during hot weather. However, in 2013 where rains have not replenished the soil moisture, there will be a need for more than normal rain. In addition, where crops were removed for silage or residue is non-existent, rain that comes will be more likely to evaporate from the soil surface, causing warmer soil temperatures during the summer.

2) What are some factors that could affect a farm in dealing with another year of drought?
For the farm sector, the importance of utilizing government risk management programs is critical for the financial health of the enterprise. With a financial safety net, the agronomic issues may not be as critical since a failure might be covered. The differences out there have to do with the lack of moisture, and the lack of residue cover. With very dry conditions and very little residue, the soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

There will not be one-size-fits all set of action steps, but one needs to examine the entire production system through the whole season and think about how each area will be affected. The areas that come to mind are agronomic practices such as what to plant, when to plant, how to plant and how much to plant. Other issues include management of weeds, diseases and insects. Also farmers need to be considerate of area soil fertility, how much was used by the crop last year compared to what was applied and how much might be left? Since many of these decisions are impossible to make with the weather unknown, which ones can be delayed and how long can they be delayed?

3) What are some key management tips that farmers can implement to protect their irrigated land?
Last year under irrigation yields were fairly good where there was enough irrigation water and the pivot was capable of keeping up with crop needs. Keeping the pivot running and meeting crop needs would be the major management tip. Some areas to check that may affect water distribution, which is more important when most of the water is coming from irrigation: uniform water application, using the correct nozzle package and that pressure regulators are all functioning.

If there are limitations on this, figuring out what the maximum yield might be when irrigation is the sole water supply will be useful, or adding a conservative prediction of rain and the maximum output, to achieve a realistic expectation. Then create a management-cropping plan to match. The critical time to irrigate is around pollination and shortly after.

4) What are five drought management tips that farmers and ranchers can implement to protect their crops?
a. Crop insurance.
b. Revise cropping plan to delay as much input decisions until as late as possible.
c. If crop insurance is not possible or inadequate, revising plans is much more critical. In this case, diversify as much as possible:
     i. Some corn on corn, choose varieties carefully for appropriate ones.
     ii. Some corn following soybeans.
     iii. Spread some planting date decisions.
     iv. Account for nutrients carefully.
          a. Starter might be a good option this year, if roots remain in the surface and can’t explore deep, they may need to utilize more nitrogen from the top foot.
     v. Try to maintain cover as much as possible by reducing tillage.

Grazing and Forage

Grazing and forage are key concerns of the more than 20,000 cow-calf operations across the state of Nebraska. With the large number of cattle in the state, ranking second nationally in cattle and calves, many concerns are arising as another year of drought is on the horizon.

Troy Walz is a UNL Extension educator for Custer County and previously served as the range and forage research technologist at the West Central Research and Extension Center. Walz adds his insight into grazing and forage management on cow-calf operations for upcoming challenges in 2013.

1) Compared to 2012, how will 2013 be different in terms of grazing and forage?
In 2012 it warmed up early, this year we are not seeing this early warm up. Last year we were able to utilize residual grass or carryover grass from 2011. However this year, due to last year’s decreased forage production most producers will have limited residual grass, if any at all. Also, even if we receive normal precipitation we know that our pasture production of desirable plant species will be lower, due to the 2012 drought.

2) What are some factors that could affect a farm or ranch in dealing with another year of drought?
The following are just a few factors: forage availability, forage price, feed price in general, cattle prices, as well as other financial considerations and impacts. Forage supplies were limited last year and supplies are very tight currently. For the most part, winter was an open winter and cow-calf producers were able to use corn stalk grazing to keep feed costs down and spare or stockpile expensive harvested forage.

Even with normal rain fall, the root system of grass plants, due to the lack of moisture, has been stressed and grazing opportunities will be limited. Additionally, if a producer sells livestock, tax implications need to be considered.

3) What are five drought management tips that farmers and ranchers can implement to protect their grazing?
For pastures and rangeland, recommendations for the year after a drought include:
a) Delaying initial turn-out to pasture.
b) Reduction of stocking rates or cull low performing cows.
c) Capitalize on growth of weedy species that might occur.
d) Use rotation grazing and in central/western Nebraska, graze pastures only once from turn-out to killing frost.
e) Use alternative forages.

One option that many producers did last year was to early wean calves to lower the nutrient requirements of the cows by reducing lactation demands. Early weaning permits more cows to be carried on a limited forage supply as well as allowing calves to be fed to grow to their genetic potential. Another option is to relocate the cow herd to a non-drought area. If 2013 follows 2012, with the drought being so widespread, this may not be an option.

4) What are five drought management tips that farmers and ranchers can implement to protect their forage?
a) Test forages to know what the nutrient content of their forages are and feed accordingly.
b) Balance feed rations to minimize overfeeding and underfeeding.
c) Minimize wasting any forage.
d) Drylotting cows – there are many ways to drylot cows and many feedlots are offering this service. Keep in mind that bunk space is critical and different than for feedlot cattle. If the ration is of high energy and protein content, it may not be necessary to feed cows to their capacity.
e) Have a drought management plan and be prepared to implement it for prolonged drought.

Livestock on Feed

Nebraska is the number one state for production of commercial red meat and cattle slaughtered in the U.S.; however with the drought ongoing into 2013, this brings some additional management and planning challenges for feedlot operators to maximize feed efficiency across the state.

Galen Erickson of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln adds his insight below to assist feedlot operators in preparing for an ongoing drought. Erickson is the Nebraska cattle industry professor of animal science in the department of animal science as well as the beef feedlot extension specialist.

1) Compared to 2012, how will 2013 be different in terms of managing livestock on feed?
There have been recent decreases in prices of grain and byproducts, mostly related to the release of the planting intentions. What the weather does in the next two months will dictate what happens with this corn price. Most economists and forecasters suggest corn will be between $4 and $8 per bushel, leaving a wide range and is not overly helpful for planning.

Regardless, the forage resource with the greatest potential following summer 2013 will be corn residue. Even with some yield drags due to poor moisture, most areas of Nebraska have irrigation available even though it may be restricted. We expect corn residue to be a possibility, but that is not helpful until fall. Sourcing forages will be important, for cow-calf, backgrounding and feedlots. Other residue options include wheat straw and corn stalks combined with distillers or gluten feeds, or the use of corn silage.

In addition, when feed prices are expensive, even more focus is required on how feeds are managed and ways to improve feed efficiency or cost of gain. We can feed cheaper feeds and at times give up some feed efficiency, but cost of grain has to compensate for poorer feed efficiency. Clearly, use of technologies such as feed additives, implants, and beta-agonists offer real pluses when feed costs are expensive and cattle prices are expensive.

We have seen real, sustained negative profitability that is hurting equity. Without improved profitability soon, we will unfortunately have less feeders. As an industry, we have more capacity than cattle to fill those spaces. With the drought and cow liquidation, there will be even fewer available. Managing risk with price protections seems prudent now more than ever. There are many ways to manage risk and some do not include the futures market, so I would encourage feeders to explore all those options that will eliminate or minimize risk and chances for huge losses. The key is to plan ahead.

2) What are some factors that could affect a farmer or rancher in dealing with another year of drought?
In addition to what cow-calf producers may face with grazing and forage management, an additional challenge in some parts will be water for cattle. Operations that rely on ponds or man-made dugouts may be required to haul water.

3) What is the key drought management tip that feedlot operators can implement?
Get an inventory of forages, byproducts and grain set – there is risk that prices will drop for byproducts and grain, but there is risk of price increasing too depending on spring and summer rainfall. There is little doubt that forage will be limited regardless of weather, so feedlots need to have a plan for forage inventory, source and supply. Again, corn silage for fall 2013 may be the best option, followed by corn stalks and then other hays.

Attracting cattle and purchasing economically will be key to profits returning in the feeding sector.

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