Western Nebraska cattle producers should prepare for potential drought conditions in light of recent below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures.
As of late April, average precipitation year to date for the Nebraska Panhandle is only 50% of normal. These dry conditions, coupled with the above-normal temperatures that have accompanied them have resulted in soil profiles that are moisture depleted, according to Aaron Berger, UNL Extension educator and Karla Jenkins, cow-calf/range specialist in the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff.
The long-range predictions, should they come true, could prove to be challenging as well. Both the 30- and 90-day forecasts from the National Weather Service are predicting above normal temperatures for this region, Berger says.
In light of these circumstances it is prudent for ranchers to begin to plan for how they will deal with these dry conditions should they continue and become a drought.
Following are several reminders for beef producers to consider as they plan how to manage these conditions.
- If possible, delay turnout onto pastures to allow grass to grow as much as possible before beginning to graze. With the open winter, producers may have some carry-over hay. Using hay and supplement now will give grasses as much time as possible to grow prior to turnout, and will maximize the growth available from the limited soil water that is available.
- Begin to implement a drought management plan and set dates now, prior to turnout, when stocking rates on pasture/native range will be reduced if significant precipitation hasn't been received. Identify cattle now that could be fed harvested feed, moved to pasture in another area or marketed to reduce feed needs.
- Begin now to secure feed resources that will be needed later in the summer and in the fall and winter due to the likely shortage of forage production. Crop residues such as cornstalks for grazing should be secured before fall. Bales of wheat straw or corn stover could be purchased in the summer to be mixed with wet distillers grains or beet pulp. These rations can be limit-fed to beef cattle while maintaining body condition.
- Consider ways to incorporate annual forages into both dryland and irrigated cropping systems. If summer rains come, they may allow forages grown on dryland to make a crop that can be harvested for feed or grazed. Planting summer annuals or oats into irrigated wheat stubble in late July or early August may be a good option as a way to grow additional forage.
- Early weaning of calves can significantly reduce cow nutrient requirements. With high quality feed in a balanced ration, calves can easily be weaned at 100 days of age or earlier with good management. When making your plan, consider information in UNL resources and from producers who experienced the drought in the early 2000s.