It’s 3 p.m. on another steamy afternoon in Central Kansas and a quick drive by the pasture by our house would give you the impression the cow herd that once occupied the pasture had moved on. But upon closer inspection, you’ll find the Angus-based commercial cow herd tucked into the shadows of the trees at the back of the pasture.
Nearly two months of consistent triple-digit daytime temperatures and less than a half of an inch of rain during that same time has created harsh conditions for our pastures and our cattle.
There are no insurance programs in place for cattle to replace pastures and cattle lost to drought and heat. A livestock disaster program included in the 2008 farm bill expired last year and there has been talk of reviving the program but we cannot sit idly by, waiting for a solution. We have to work daily to monitor our animals and their food sources to ensure as minimal an impact from the drought as possible.
Like humans, animals adapt to their environments. Our cattle are up with the sun each morning, getting in breakfast before they break for several hours to get out of the sun and heat. When the sun begins to set, the cattle and calves will emerge from the shadows to enjoy dinner.
And it’s not just the heat, the grass they typically graze each summer struggles to come up from the parched, cracked ground. The weeds are dry and nutrients are lost as the grass bakes in the sun.
My husband and his father, who manage the care of the cows and all of the animals on our farm, check the cattle daily and monitor their health and condition. They have begun feeding dried distillers grain – a byproduct of ethanol – to replace lost protein and nutrients. The pond the cattle would normally turn to for water is dried and cracked. A water trough is filled daily to meet their water needs.
Statewide, 8 out of 10 pastures are considered in poor or very poor condition, which means other food sources must be found. As those sources become expensive and difficult to locate, more and more cattle owners are opting to send their cattle to slaughter. We have not had to make that difficult decision but have had to look at alternative food sources as pasture conditions decline.
There is no forecasted end to the disastrous drought, which means pastures will remain dry and grass conditions will continue to decline. In the next few weeks, we will again check the conditions of the pastures and determine whether the grass is healthy enough to support our growing animals. Our mother cows will enter their second trimester soon. Nutrition is of the up most importance during those three months to ensure happy and healthy calves.
If the pastures are not healthy enough to support our animals, we will bring them home and feed them using corn and grain sorghum grown on our farm.
The impacts of two years of drought conditions will impact our animals and pastures for years to come. Our pastures will not be able to support as many animals as it had in past years as grass rebounds from two years of heat and drought. We will use the winter months to replace the minerals and vitamins the grass did not fully deliver and the prices we receive for our beef will decline because supply will outpace demand for the next few months. If and when we do decide to grow our herd, a shrinking herd will force prices for cows up.
We can’t make it rain and we can’t reverse the damage the drought has caused our pastures and farms but we can find solutions to problems and continue to work to feed our animals, keep them healthy and produce a quality, affordable supply of beef.