July 8, 2005 | By: Aimee Nielson

With most of the state in various stages of drought, cattle producers may need to adjust their management plans to cope.

“Lack of rain is a continual threat to farming enterprises,” said Lee Meyer, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture economist. “Occasionally drought can be so severe that normal plans have to be changed, like in 1998 and 1999.”

Meyer said key economic decisions should not be made in a rush, because droughts do not happen suddenly and there is always time to make good decisions on factors such as stocking rates, supplemental feeding and the timing of marketing.

Because stocking rates depend on pasture condition, quality and other agronomic factors, Meyer said it’s important not to panic. The pasture may look dry but still have adequate nutrients for cattle. 

“Many farmers are surprised with weaning weights after a dry summer,” he said. “The pasture may be quite dry, but the cattle are eating the equivalent of hay and receiving enough nutrients to continue to gain or maintain body condition. The key is to have enough forage available, regardless of how dry it may be.”

If producers do choose to reduce stocking rates, Meyer said it’s important to select the right animals. For spring-calving herds, producers should do pregnancy checks on their cows.
“This is a good time to cull open cows and with strong market prices, it may be a good management decision,” he added.

Some producers are tempted to wean calves early to send to market as another way of reducing stocking rates, which brings up the question of supplemental feeds or hay.

Meyer pointed out that weaning early may make sense, but selling early does not. Cows can be kept on the dry pasture and purchased feeds can be fed to young calves, making early weaning a profitable enterprise.

“Most farmers make enough hay to carry their cattle through an abnormally poor winter, so some hay can be used during dry weather and farmers will still have an adequate amount for winter,” Meyer said. “Other feedstuffs can be purchased. I think that often the cost of feed is well justified based on the value of the weight added to cattle.”

Meyer believes it very unlikely that the drought would suppress market prices because cattle markets depend on national and regional, not local, supply conditions. He said the key is how widespread the drought becomes. If it is extensive, with many cattle producers affected and a lot of cattle are rushed to market, prices could fall because of increased supply.

“Fortunately for Kentucky producers, the current drought is mostly in a band stretching from Michigan, south to Louisiana – not the heart of cattle country,” he said. “Nationally, feeder cattle supplies are tight so the dry weather will not have much of an impact on feeder cattle prices unless it expands into more cattle states or grain prices soar.”


Writer: Aimee Nielson 859-257-4736, ext. 267

Contact: Lee Meyer 859-257-7272, ext. 228