FARM SECTION: Vet says drought effects linger 'for some time to come' for cattle producers

Dan Goehl, a Canton, Mo., veterinarian and cattle producer, checks on a cow and her calf in a barn next to the Canton Veterinary Clinic. Lack of feed, combined with high heat last summer, took a toll on herd health, and Goehl expects producers will contin
Posted: Feb. 11, 2013 11:42 am Updated: Mar. 11, 2013 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The combination of hot weather and dry conditions packed a punch for cattle producers last year -- and for years to come.

"We will see lingering effects of the drought for some time to come," said Dan Goehl, a Canton, Mo., veterinarian and cattle producer.

Lack of feed, combined with high heat, took a toll on herd health.

Goehl said record heat affected pregnancy rates in cattle, with fall calving cows losing pregnancies and spring calving cows having trouble getting pregnant.

"What happens to cows while pregnant can directly affect the health of the calf the next year or two," Goehl said.

Hot, dry weather stunted pastures used for summertime feed, posing another challenge for producers to keep pregnant cows, and other cattle in the herd, well fed.

"A lot of our feed inputs were at an all-time high. You see producers wanting to skimp on inputs which has detrimental side effects down the road," Goehl said. "If a cow is not on a good plan of nutrition, she does not deliver as good of colostrum, the first mother's milk, and the effects on that animal's immune system follow it for 12-18 months."

Griggsville producer Tyler Musgrave expects a normal calf crop this year -- just smaller than usual with some cows failing to conceive.

"I've got 50 calves on the ground right now. Everything's been going pretty good," Musgrave said last month. "That's why I'm saying I don't see any reasons to doubt this year's calf crop. We'll just have to wait and see what Mother Nature gives us."

Despite last year's weather challenges, most cows stayed in "pretty decent shape, body condition wise," said Zac Erwin, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist based in Lewis County.

A failed corn crop in many areas turned into an advantage for cattle producers.

"If you look outside of Missouri, Iowa and Illinois and especially the western states, a lot of them don't have the luxury of field crops as an alternative feed source," said Erwin. "In a drought year like this, we take those to feed to our livestock and come out a little better than most."

Extreme heat also contributed to diagnosing Epizotic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, once thought to be solely a deer disease, in cattle.

In cattle, the disease causes ulcers in the mouth and lameness. Because the cows don't feel well, they go off feed, Goehl said, which also complicates pregnancy.

"What we'll start to see this spring in animals pregnant at the time they were exposed, some will have calves born with birth defects," Goehl said.

Combined, it's enough to drive producers out of business -- and it did, in some cases, in 2012.

"We had seen a major sell-off in cattle over probably the last three years," Goehl said. "That was exacerbated last year with more and more people getting out."

Producers may not have sold off the entire herd, but "we certainly went down in numbers," Erwin said. "Producers had to cull a little deeper than normal this year. Some of them could only feed so many."

Most likely to sell off animals are older and smaller producers.

"In the 15 years I've been here, we've given a lot of lip service to consolidation, older producers getting out, and we're seeing that now take effect," Goehl said.

Herd size in Missouri continues to grow with "the average herd we work on well above 50 and a lot of herds that have several hundred," Goehl said. "The larger producers are more efficient. You see that in all phases of agriculture, all phases of business."

All cattle operations, no matter what size, can benefit from good management.

"A lot of these decisions we're making this fall, right now or in the spring kind of have an additive effect. If you're a good manager of your feed supplies but not a good manager of your pastures, those things can only get you so far," said Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension educator in commercial agriculture. "Force yourself to reach outside your comfort zone and explore different methods and strategies and try to become better managers of feed, forage, cattle and genetics and put them together in the right package. If we manage all those aspects, we have a lot better chance of making it through a drought or a period of time where we experience some tough markets or any adverse situation."