Jan. 19, 2012 - Veteran rancher and livestock specialist Ron Gill has seen droughts before and recognizes that this one is different than others he has lived and worked through. For one thing, the prices are near all-time record highs as world demand for beef soars. It doesn't take as many cattle to make a profit as it used to, and that's a good thing in a time of drought.
Another good thing, as Gill sees it, is that the cow is a ruminant -- "a wonderful ruminant," he calls it -- with a stomach vat designed that allows the cow to eat and digest matter other animals can't handle. Just how versatile the cow's digestive system is has been on display during the current drought.
Gill, a livestock specialist for Texas AgriLife Extension for close to 30 years, said this past year brought a lot of odd queries to Extension from cattle producers. Can a cow eat milo stubble? Is it good for them? How about cotton plants? Mesquite beans? Prickly pears? Gill has a simple answer for most of the queries.
"If you can run in through a baler, we can run it through a cow," Gill told producers at a recent cow-calf clinic in Milano. "If it won't tear the baler up, a cow will eat it. Milo stubble is better feed than most of the Bermuda grass we bale, and we can feed it cheaper than we can feed Bermuda grass."
Cotton plants make surprisingly good feed, too, which came in handy this year when widespread failure of the Texas cotton crop led some farmers to bale their cotton plants as cattle feed. Feeding cotton seeds and cotton seed meal have been common options for quite a while. While new to Texas, the practice of baling the actual plant is common in certain parts of the Southeast. Gill said that some whole cotton plants carry nine to 10 percent protein, but they don't provide as much energy as previously thought.
Gill noted that some ranchers have taken to feeding mesquite beans to provide some protein, which he said is fine in small doses. Small ruminants, like goats and sheep, can't handle the protein beans and some cows have died from eating too much. "It's like a lot of things -- a little bit is a good thing," he said.
Prickly pears, however, shouldn't be fed at all, according to Gill.
"If you're burning the pears to feed to the cows, you kill the grass, too," he said. "They've been doing that nonsense in South Texas for years. That's one reason they don't have a lot of grass in South Texas."
All of these things, and other recent options like peanut hay and rice hay, made available by the failure of some of those crops, can keep a cow alive. But all forages are not created equal, and the quality of the forage cattle are getting determines other decisions, like when to supplement and how much.
"A cow can stay alive on low-quality forage," Gill said. "It doesn't take much to keep a cow alive. If you're feeding low quality forage, that sucking calf has to go. Cows are dying when it gets cold and wet. If cows are low on energy from eating low quality forage, they can't survive the wet and cold weather."
Low-quality forage means a producer will have to supplement the cattle's diet not only with protein but with something that also produces energy, Gill said. With corn and milo, sometimes a protein supplement is enough but the cow's body condition score has to be high enough to allow it to produce a calf in the spring.
"A lot of cows won't cycle next year because of poor body condition," he said. "Cows will eat a boatload of hay and nibble on anything else if they can get it. You see them ignoring hay to nibble at a little bit off green grass, but that green grass may be a deterrent because they may not be getting enough of it. They might lose weight with hay sitting right there in front of them."
When it comes to buying hay, cheap may not always be the cheapest, he said. Spending the extra money for high quality forage can pay off if it allows the producer to forego expensive supplements.
"Do the math," Gill said. "Unless alfalfa exceeds the price of range cubes, it's a better deal. Every decision we make to write a check, we have to figure out how many calves it's going to take to pay that bill. Sometimes you're going to find it's just not worth it."
Gill said that during past droughts he has tried to help ranchers produce strategies for destocking and restocking herds. Now he believes that destocking plans, which are expensive and are rarely implemented soon enough, can cause more harm than good. Instead, Gill suggests planning to capture excess forage through increased seasonal stocking levels.
"We need to spend more time grazing and less time feeding," he said. "We have always put the emphasis on the cow as a resource. We think of ourselves as grass farmers but actually the resource is the ground that grows the grass. It's going to require change, but I really don' think we need to look the same after this drought as before."
In light of current beef prices, Gill believes that less might be more for ranchers.
"If you have to pay more to have more cows, it might not be worth it," he said. "We can't afford to do things the way we've always done them just because that's the way we've always done them. It's different now. In the past, beef prices went to Hades during a drought, but that's not the case now. You might lose money by having too many cows because of what it costs to feed them. Now is a good time to look at whether you might make more money on fewer cows."