Drought is causing cattle producers to cull herds and cut costs. On Aug. 14, nearly 98 percent of Missouri was experiencing drought.

University of Missouri Extension specialists gathered with cattle producers at two Drought Survival Meetings on Friday, Aug. 17. 

Now is the time to cull

Eldon Cole, regional livestock specialist, gave tips on choosing cattle to cull, as well as management tips for cattle producers to keep. If she is old, open or ornery, now is the time to cull the cow, Cole said. Drought and high-priced hay provide a good time to cull cows over 10 years old, he said. 

Producers should also employ a veterinarian to check each cow for pregnancy. 

“This year, more than ever, make sure she has something in her,” Cole said. “It’s less than $5 a head.”

Ornery cows, those with bad utters, bad teeth, eye problems or foot problems should also go, he said. 

“Sort and feed according to need,” Cole said. “Not every cow needs the same amount of feed.”

 Keep cattle in at least two groups, and feed according to their body needs. The target body condition score is a five or six, Cole said. Cows on either extreme of the one-to-nine scale should also be culled. Producers can wean calves as early as three to four months old, he said. 

“It takes the pressure off the cows, and they’re more likely to breed back,” Cole said. It is more economical to push the calf to grow separately, he said. It can creep feed on grains or even alfalfa pasture. An electric wire can be strung so cows stay out and calves can run under, into the alfalfa, according to Cole. Costs will be higher, margins smaller.

Jim Spencer, ag business specialist from Ozark, told the crowd to make economic decisions sooner rather than later. Even if someone finds a good deal on feed, account for the trucking cost, he said. 

“Calculate the dry matter cost, and figure out how to stretch your options,” Spencer said. Although silage can meet cattle nutrient needs, it should be tested for nitrates. Nitrates increase with drought stress, he said. Evaluate what it costs to feed each head of cattle per day, then find out what feeds you can have mixed to order. 

“Try to lower your inputs, but know the bottom line will be worse,” Spencer said. To save on feed costs this year, start feeding hay now, he said. Start to stockpile pasture, as it costs one third less to feed than hay. Producers should check farmer tax guides if they are considering selling cattle, Spencer said. 

Know when forage may be toxic

Jill Scheidt, regional agronomy specialist, informed listeners on the dangers of nitrate poisoning, prussic acid and fire ants. Nitrates gather in lower stems of warm season grasses during periods of drought and suppressed growth, Scheidt said. 

“The lower portion will be more concentrated than the leaves,” Scheidt said. The key: test it before you graze it, she said. All MU Extension offices have a solution to test forages for the presence of nitrates. If it tests positive, she suggests taking a sample to a lab to see if it is safe to graze. 

Nitrates don’t dissipate with time when they are baled in hay. However, ensiling hay can reduce nitrates, Scheidt said. If there is a drought-ending rain, nitrates temporarily spike. 

“Wait three to five days to graze, or don’t let them graze on the lower stalks,” she said. 

Prussic acid, on the other hand, occurs when suppressed growth is followed by rapid regrowth. “Wait [to graze for] two weeks or for two feet of growth,” Scheidt said. Unlike nitrates, prussic acid dissipates in hay. If producers must import hay from southern states, ask for hay certified to be free of fire ants, Scheidt said. 

Fire ants live in hay stored on soil, and cause a blistering bite, she said. Uncertified hay can be tested with a hot dog or peanut butter. Place the food on top of a bale and check it in an hour. If there are fire ants, they most likely will have congregated around the food, Scheidt said. 

Another Extension Drought Survival Meeting is set to take place at the McCarty Senior Center in Wheatland on Friday, Sept. 7 from 6 to 9 p.m. Those interested in attending are asked to preregister by Sept. 6. For more information, call Terry Halleran at (417) 745-6767.

Cattle producers are invited to call Extension specialists to examine the needs of each individual operation. Andy McCorkill, Dallas County livestock specialist, can be reached at (417) 345-7551. 

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