When I was growing up, my mother had a lot of “sayings.” One was, “You would be presented with a lesson until you learned it.” At that point, she’d give me another lesson. When I was considering subjects for this article, I realized with a sense of weariness, that this particular saying was especially relevant to the topic of drought management. I then recalled a friend asking me why animal scientists were still doing studies about the value of castrating your calves. I said, “Probably because you can still buy a load of bulls.” That statement also applies here.
Unless you are younger than 12 and live in the Southern Plains, this is not your first drought. So, here are two important questions: One: Are you more or less prepared for this one that you were the last one? Two: If you answered question one “no” or “maybe,” have you considered the consequences of your current plan?
To quote the chorus of a song I like: “Everybody’s got their own way, tomorrow’s another day, make of it what you will, as you’re climbing up that hill and always be prepared to pay.” That chorus could also be known as the Rule of Compounding. What you do today will affect you for months to come, if not years. Positive or negative is the only choice you have.
In other words, will your current plan position you to survive better or worse if drought persists or worsens? To quote Thomas Sowell, “You can evade reality but not the consequences of evading reality.” And when it comes to range and pasture management, the cold fact is, the best part of a good plan involves de-stocking.
In 30 years of looking at people’s cattle, I have almost never seen a place properly or under-stocked, and certainly not properly stocked for adverse conditions and circumstances. Here are a couple of important points about your grazing plan: If your plan has two“ifs,” you should critically examine it. If it has three or more “ifs,” you should abandon or modify it immediately. Wishing and hoping is never a good plan, even if it does sometimes work. Fundamental human nature will usually lead us to confuse the fact that we got lucky with the idea that we are skilled.
Then there are the numbers.
In 2012, after a year of drought, packer cows were $45/cwt and a 550-pound calf was $135/cwt. As of this writing, slaughter cows are $80/cwt and calves are $190/cwt. That’s a difference of around $790 per pair.
2022: Cow 1400 lbs x $0.80 = $1,120
Calf 550 lbs x $1.90 = $ 1,045
$1120 + $1045 = $2,165
2012: Cow 1400 lbs x $0.45 = $630
Calf 550 lbs x $1.35 = $743
$630 + $743 = $1,373
That $800 +/- difference is a gift from God if you are in a bad place. We should be able to salvage a pair for $2,000 in a wreck and be okay. If we can’t then we likely waited too long to make a decision. There are provisions in the tax code to defer that income for one to two years, so don’t play the “taxes will eat me up if I sell out” card. . Will it cost more to get back in? Most likely. But will you be better off? Almost certainly. Another cold fact: Most of us can replace our cows a lot easier than we think.
So, If it rains in mid-August, and IF your pasture recovers miraculously, and IF hay gets cheap, you’ll still have a re-stocking option. In all likelihood, however, this forage/hay problem will not be resolved until sometime in the next year, at the earliest. We are hurtling towards the point where what you see/have is what you get (aka fall and winter). If you want to get in the ring with Mother Nature for a shot at the title, consider this:
Assumed: 1400 lb. cow
Feed = $425/ton
Hay = $250/ton or $125/roll
Hay: 2.5% body wt (assuming a dry cow)
0.025 x 1400 x .125/lb. = $4.38/day
Feed: 5lb @ $0.2125/lb. = $1.06/day
Total: $4.38 + $1.06 = $5.44/day
$5.44/day x 90 days = $490.00
$5.44/day x 180 days = $980.00
If you bow up to Mother Nature and get TKO’d in the 11th round (aka next spring), your cows will largely have eaten themselves up. But if you just want a three-round exhibition match, and let them coast a while to see if things get better, here’s some more nasty math:
Current Value: 1400 lb. cow at .86/lb.= $1200
2 BCS scores and 60-90 days later:
1200 lb. cow at .74/lb.= $890
When you sell, your cows will be 200 lb. lighter (or less) and $300/head less, several “ifs,” notwithstanding:
• IF the market doesn’t go down (and it usually does in the fall/early winter);
• IF your cows are short bred when you embark on this, a lot of them won’t be bred at all when you finish; and
• IF they are still bred, you’ll have a thin cow going into winter. I have first-hand knowledge that that is a bad thing.
If you’ve read this far, some of you may be asking, “What do you know?” I’ll readily admit, I am not on the board of directors at the Psychic Friends Network. It could rain so much between now and Christmas that you bury your truck in the mud up to its front differential. But a lot of the facts in this article will remain, wet or dry. We could all do well to remember the motto of the Navy SEALS: “The only easy day was yesterday.”
It's not just about the cows.
If you have not destroyed your soil armor, and baked your biology and weakened your plant roots, you will be in a lot better place when it does finally rain. The drought referred to in the Old Testament was seven years (Genesis 41). The old timers talk of the 1950’s drought that lasted seven years (beating out the dust bowl years). The “dry spell” in 2011 lasted three years.
Rain is not guaranteed. Maybe it’s a good time to do the “Leviticus 25 thing.” If you’re wrong and it rains, your soil and grass will be better off. If it doesn’t rain, your soil and grass will be better off and you and your financial resources will be better positioned to fight another day.
A closing word on duking it out with Mother Nature paraphrased from Rob Watson: “Mother nature is just chemistry, biology, and physics. You cannot sweet talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot lie to her. You cannot outspend her. Mother Nature is going to do whatever chemistry, biology, and physics dictate and Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats 1000.”
And with a batting average like that, the smart move is to make sure we have on the same-colored jersey as Mother Nature—or be prepared to lose.