STILLWATER, Okla. – The impact of drought is devastating, but the agricultural data collected during such difficult times is a valuable teaching tool.
Oklahoma State University Extension experts have some retrospectives on the historic drought that hit the Plains a decade ago and how it could benefit producers in today’s similar climate.
Cattle and livestock Derrell Peel, OSU Extension livestock marketing specialist, offered the following drought response tips:
• Misuse of pastures, especially native areas, slows the recovery process when drought ends and can affect productivity for years.
• Pasture and pasture management is more important during drought not only to maintain forage supplies, but also to prevent problems related to prussic acid, nitrate and toxic plant consumption by cattle.
• Keeping more cows than farmers can reasonably manage causes delayed losses in reproductive performance and extends drought costs beyond drought years.
• Bringing hay from multiple locations can cause weed problems in pastures.
• When cattle numbers decline, the market will respond with dramatic and volatile price signals that will prompt producer action.
• The 2011-2014 drought resulted in record high breeding and feeder cattle prices, followed by a sharp drop in prices.
Dave Lalman, OSU Extension beef cattle specialist, said that while cattle numbers in Oklahoma and Texas were significantly reduced during the recent drought, the elimination improved the overall quality of the national cow herd.
“Drought has led to aggressive culling, resulting in faster progress in some traits such as temperament, udder structure and fertility,” Lalman said. “At the same time, severe drought conditions have stimulated widespread interest in creating a cow herd better suited to local farm conditions.”
These conditions have been well above average in terms of precipitation since about 1983. From a consumer perspective, cattle are much better than they were 30 years ago.
“The industry has successfully selected for growth, carcass weight and marbled cattle, but it has not focused as much on matching cattle to feed stocks. The drought of 2011 changed all that,” he said.
Lalman said it’s important to keep cows that can adapt to the environment, especially the dry climate, during tough years. Other takeaways from the recent severe drought include:
• For a commercial cow/calf operation, it is important to obtain a seedstock that excels in yield and meatability without requiring a lot of expensive supplemental feed.
“I don’t care how much genetic potential their calves have for growth, carcass yield or marbling, if a cow isn’t producing a calf, you don’t have a carcass to sell,” Lalman said.
• A cow herd developed with the basic principles of average maturity, average genetic potential for milk production, good meatability on grass and good feet is more likely to thrive in harsh environments and periods of drought.
• Reduce stocking of livestock and try to develop a grazing system that is less dependent on purchased or cut grass. In 1980, Oklahoma produced about three-quarters of a ton of hay for each beef cow. Today, the state provides two and a half tons of grass for each beef cow. The system exposes cow/calf producers to greater risk and forces them to be extremely reckless when it doesn’t rain.
“I think 2011 and 2012 made an impression that will continue,” Lalman said. “Many serious producers are better prepared today with cows that are better suited to their environment, improved grazing systems, lower stocking rates and an emergency stock of quality hay in storage. There are more people taking precautions.”
Wheat varieties Brett Carver, OSU regents professor and chair of wheat genetics, said he and the OSU Wheat Improvement Group screen thousands of wheat genetic lines each year to create new varieties. The OSU study showed that the germplasm Showdown differed during its formative years when drought was a major factor.
“From 2011 to 2014, Showdown was naturally drought tolerant as an experimental line, and these genetics are stable. They don’t change,” he said. “The deal is a blow to the drought.”
While Showdown shows potential as a drought-tolerant wheat variety, Carver said wheat breeding involves studying varieties that can withstand a range of intense weather conditions, including wet years when disease outbreaks can be just as devastating as chronic drought stress.
“There is no model genotype that we will need in 10 years,” he said. “Once identified, we give five years of different tests and look for patterns of maturity and adaptation at both extremes.”