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Current Drought Impacts on Stephens County Beef Cattle Producers

The Situation

It’s seemingly been forever since we have gotten any rain worth talking about here in Stephens County. This prolonged drought are currently dealing with poses countless issues for our livestock producers and more specifically beef cattle producers around the county. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor as of now the majority of Stephens county is in “moderate drought” or the D1 level of intensity with a bit of the eastern portion of the county still slightly behind in the D0 level or “abnormally dry”. I would expect the entire county to be in D1 level of intensity with no rainfall in the forecast for the next week. We are trending towards D2 level or “severe drought” quickly, as of now unfortunately there isn’t any rain in the forecast for the next few weeks.

Future Impact and Concerns in a Drought

The drought has many impacts on the beef cattle producers here in the county. The main and most obvious concern during this drought period is the lack of growth in our grazing pastures and how to maintain adequate nutrition of herds around the county. This prolonged period of drought has caused producers to begin feeding hay. Feeding hay is typical during the winter months when grazing pastures are often relatively bare but having to feed by mid to late September is very concerning. Feeding hay now in the fall when herds are typically still grazing can make a significant dent in our producers hay supply. Now through mid-October is also our time frame that we plant our winter annuals such as ryegrass, cereal rye, and wheat for winter grazing or spring hay. With no rain in the near forecast producers are stuck waiting for moisture to put seed in the ground. This could significantly impact much needed available forage for herds in the late winter as well as our highest quality and most profitable hay cutting this upcoming spring.

There are numerous concerns when it comes to the consumption of forages by beef cattle in drought stressed pastures. Nitrate poisoning is at the forefront of our concern in drought stressed conditions. Grazing pastures under drought stress can accumulate high levels of nitrates. Hay cut under drought stress conditions may also contain high levels of nitrates. Prussic acid or cyanide poisoning can also be a problem when grazing drought-stunted plants in the sorghum family such as johnsongrass. Cattle grazing short pastures are more likely to consume potentially poisonous plants as well. Many poisonous plants are unpalatable but may be consumed when the quantity of grass is in short supply. Rumen impaction can also be an issue and occur when cattle receive inadequate protein (less than 7 to 8 percent crude protein in the total diet) and too much low-quality high-fiber forage such as drought affected pasture or hay. A lack of adequate water can also contribute to compaction.

Impacts of our current drought have led beef cattle producers to begin feeding hay way earlier than normal. It has also put them behind on planting winter annuals for their herds and a future hay crop. They also must keep a close eye on their herds as they manage their consumption of drought stressed forages. It has been a dry and tough time for beef cattle producers here in the county over the past few months. Hopefully rain and better days are ahead for the beef cattle producers here in Stephens County.