*Note: This is an article I wrote for The McPherson Sentinel. It is part of a series of articles detailing the effects of the drought.
Tracy Shogren transitioned right from wheat harvest to moving cattle this year. That’s not his normal routine. The Lindsborg farmer’s 55 stocker calves were supposed to graze through the summer months on 180 acres of pasture near 18th Avenue and Wells Fargo Road. But the rain didn’t come this spring and the ponds dried up. So the cattle had to be moved.
Shogren is one of likely hundreds of Kansas cattle owners that have had to move on to plan B this summer.
The unrelenting heat and inopportune drought hitting the county and much of Western Kansas has taken its toll on the animals, their food and their water supplies.
Hay, grass and alfalfa fields haven’t maintained normal production levels, ponds are dry and the pastures aren’t producing the grass necessary for normal grazing. Some cattle owners have been fortunate enough to find alternative food and water sources but others have given up and given in to Mother Nature and a drought that doesn’t seem to be weakening anytime soon.
“We’ve got guys that will sell part of their herd one week then sell some more a couple weeks later,” said Hutchinson Commission Company owner Jason Cuiksa. “It’s not just food, guys are running out of water as well.”
The drought has dominated headlines during much of the spring and summer months but it’s not the only environmental factor hurting cattle owners; consistent triple-digit temperatures are stifling weight gain in cattle and making conditions less than desirable for growing cattle and calves.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service has identified heat as a major stressor in cattle and can lead to serious consequences.
High temperatures overwhelm an animal’s ability to regulate its body temperature. Coat color, weight and age of an animal all factor into its ability to maintain its cool. There are few options for producers. Misting stations can offer cooling water but stations aren’t logical for cattle at pasture. Shade trees and fresh water are often the only options and pasture cattle typically fare better than confined cattle.
Owners that opted to send their cattle out of the area during the spring and summer grazing season have had mixed results. To the north and east, pastures are largely green, ponds full and conditions suitable for cattle. But head west and south and it’s a very different picture.
Former Inman teacher and resident Dee Scherich said his Comanche County ranch is crippling under the stresses of drought and heat. During a normal year, the 17,320-acre ranch has about 20 ponds that provide water for the 670 mother cows and calves, 120 replacement heifers and 35 bulls. But the Salt Fork River, which runs the width of the ranch, is dry, as are its tributaries. The once-reliable water source is no more.
“Our grass is very short and brittle due to cooking in 100-degree-plus temperatures,” Scherich said. “Our average daytime temp has been 98 degrees for the month of June. We have received a total of 4 inches of rain for the year 2011. In the several years previous to this we have received below normal rainfall, however, the rains have been timely so we have survived. Ponds have not been full for at least five years.”
The cattle wait until the cooler evening hours to graze and their frames are proof of the depleted nutrients. Scherich said most of his young cows are about 100 to 150 pounds lighter than they would be under normal conditions.
Countering the drought has become a time-consuming and expensive venture for Scherich and other ranch managers.
“We have drilled some unplanned water wells and are in the process of installing plastic pipe, pumps, electricity source, and tanks to get water to various locations for the cattle to drink,” he said. “Our next step is to wean the calves from the young cows and put them on a feed ration that will give them the protein they need for good growth. This will require buying protein supplement and hay.”
State-wide, about 30 percent more pasture land can be classified as poor or very poor when compared to this time last year, according to data from the National Integrated Drought Information System.
Windom farmer and cattle owner Jeff Smith said he has had to leave windmills pumping to keep his ponds full in the southwest part of the county. He must monitor well depths daily but adds he does access to rural water, which could be his saving grace if rain doesn’t come soon.
Shogren said he knew water would be tight this year because of the lack of rain during the spring.
“By the middle of June we were getting worried,” Shogren said. “A year like this we knew water was short going into the grazing season because of very little spring rain.”
The options for cattle owners are varied when water sources go dry. Many have found ways to make summer grazing work, but have had to abandon their routine grazing schedule.
Smith said he has had to abandon his rotational grazing cycle because ponds in all but one of the paddocks have dried up. Grass in his pastures should get him through the summer months but this fall, Smith will face a new set of challenges. Hay and alfalfa pastures that would normally provide sufficient winter feed are also suffering. Smith estimates he will get about a third of his normal feed supplies, which means he will have to find other means of forage.
Dale Ladd, McPherson County Agriculture Extension Agent, said forage alternatives could prove too costly for making cattle profitable this fall and winter. The Kansas Department of Agriculture classifies the state’s hay supply as tight to very tight and demand as strong. The basic principles of supply and demand have pushed hay prices upwards. The same could be true for silage, depending on the number of farmers that opt to chop their corn crop early. Smith said silage could be the difference between retaining and selling his animals. Stocker cow and steer prices are holding steady Cuiksa said but the number of people willing to buy the calves and lightweight animals is dimini
“No one has the means to take of more animals,” Cuiksa said.
Scherich said the drought gripping the state is worse than anything he has experienced while managing the ranch. He compares the conditions to those between 1953 and 1957 when his father was the ranch manager.
The months for large rainfall totals have passed and many doubt there will be a rain this summer sufficient to fill the ponds and streams in the county. The county is now about 8 inches behind normal rainfall totals for the year.
Shogren said he has no plans to try to restock his pasture and like man
y in the area, must now wait until next spring to bring cattle back to the area.
“We’re just all hoping for rain right now,” Smith said. “Life will be good if it would just rain.”