California drought requires new cattle and rangeland strategies
The new year has not brought good news for California agricultural producers. Even if timely and abundant rains occur this winter across the state, California ag producers will have to remain in crisis mode.

Even though annual precipitation amounts vary greatly within and between years, this current year is historic! Many long time ranchers say they have never seen conditions like these.

 As ranchers know, the timing and subsequent early rainfall received during this year greatly impacted the amount of forage produced. The lack of early rains will severely impact forage, especially on rangelands that are predominantly annual species.

 As this year progresses without rain, forage recovery becomes more and more critical. Annual species may still germinate if rains continue, but they will die due to lack of subsequent rains. The lack of this early forage production will result in forage losses over all range and pasture lands.

 The past few years’ lack of “normal rainfall” has resulted in decreased forage production available to dairy and livestock. To help alleviate this problem, dairy and livestock producers should consider applying several drought management strategies in their operations, covered below, including: livestock management strategies, supplemental feeding, and range management strategies.

 Good health and performance records of livestock can assist dairy and livestock producers in making sound management decisions. During this drought, this information is especially critical when making management decisions, especially if culling animals becomes necessary. You can’t “feed” your way out of a drought, and herd reduction may become necessary. Use health and performance records to make these decisions to ensure that your best genetics are maintained.

 ● Grouping of grazing animals: Livestock can be grouped according to nutritional needs to allow for proper feeding of each group and ease in assessing body condition score.

 ● Weaning calves and lambs: Young stock should be weaned as soon as possible, allowing mature females to stay in better body condition.

 ● Selling/Destocking Livestock: Producers should “pregnancy check” all heifers, cows and ewes for pregnancy and cull those that are open. The most desirable younger stock should be kept to maintain developed genetics. This way the producer can save valuable breeding stock and replenish the herd after the drought has broken. Livestock producers have their own cow-culling criteria which are used every year but this year producers may have to go beyond the normal criteria in order to further reduce herd size.

 Cow-culling should be based on productivity; a common practice is to cull non-productive cows from the herd. This is a time when you can’t afford to feed cows that are not producing at an adequate level. Giving cows a second chance and keeping those cows that wean smaller calves are practices that compromise the health and productivity of your higher producing cows, your entire herd and your ability to survive this drought.

 Sound range management strategies can also assist dairy and livestock producers in surviving drought. There is no single management practice to be applied; all strategies should be evaluated carefully in terms of cost and expected returns. Each producer must evaluate these options and select those best suited to the unique conditions of their operation.

 ● Pasture Rotation: A grazing plan that would allow areas to be rested after grazing would help accomplish this goal. If more pastures are available to graze, develop a strategy that includes rotating through these pastures and providing water and supplement to help animal distribution. Producers can also change feeding areas to improve grazing management.

● Pasture Utilization: Producers can use the “aspect” or position of the pasture to maximize the forage that will be produced. Take advantage of south and west aspects early in the grazing season, grazing the earlier maturing forage before it dries. Then grazed forage on north- and east-facing pastures.


● Swales: Rangelands and pastures with deeper, more fertile soils, hold water longer and will produce more forage. During this cold winter season, however; these areas are growing at a slower pace. Producers may want to install temporary fencing placed around these swales and “bank” feed for spring. These later maturing plants will help extend the growing season.

● Use nitrogen fertilization: If and when it rains, applications of nitrogen fertilizer will produce a quick forage production response, as long as it keeps raining. This can also increase forage protein quantity.

● Poisonous plants: Poisonous plants can become a bigger problem during drought. Recently, livestock producers in Solano/Yolo Counties experienced cattle deaths due to cattle consuming the seeds of buckeye trees. California buckeye has the dubious distinction of being both common and poisonous. A lethal dose for calves is about 1% of its body weight, consumed over a day. During past droughts, oak toxicity problems have also occurred. Oak toxicity occurs when oak tree buds, leaves and fresh acorns are consumed.

Regardless of other strategies, consistent access to high quality water is paramount. The problem is that during drought, water is often more difficult to obtain. Several California producers are currently purchasing water for their animals. As drought deepens, this contingency will only increase. Additional sources of water (springs, seeps, water tanks, ponds, or reservoirs, and wells) should be explored and developed as soon as possible.

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