Dealing with Drought
As I drive around this region of the state the landscape is all just variable shades of brown- forage, dirt, and trees included. If it wasn’t for the blaring heater and an obnoxiously fluorescent Fahrenheit reading from the dash of my pickup, I could almost be confused if it is 20 or 120 degrees outside. Warm season grasses are dormant, cool season grasses never really came up, and even the wheat fields have mostly thrown in the towel. It appears that most everyone in West Texas (and much of the western U.S.) is dealing with this same abysmal situation, and here at the research station in San Angelo we have not been spared. Adding insult to injury the long-range weather forecast indicates that this will persist through the spring.
Typically, when wide-spread drought conditions occur, ranchers are left with no choice but to sell lambs or kid goats at lighter weights and often cull harder on their breeding females. If a large percent of the industry takes this action at the same time, it can oversupply the market and force prices down. Fortunately for the sheep and goat industry, this is the time of the year that supply of all classes of sheep and goats at market are lower and prices are strong.
Another option for ranchers is to feed through the drought. Again, if a lot of people take this approach, then the price of hay and supplement (which are also in short supply because of said drought) will escalate. The unfortunate situation for this year is the market for livestock feed was high even before the faucet from the heavens turned off in early fall. Luckily, the high market price of sheep and goats have allowed for ranchers to purchase higher priced feeds and still generate a return on investment.
Like many of you, we are at a point that supplementation rates of our research flocks and herds have had to increase substantially to keep adequate condition on our animals. Without rain in the near future, we won’t be “supplementing” the animals but rather feeding them most of their entire diet. In this case, we will have to dry-lot most of the animals as leaving them too long on pasture will result in overgrazing that will make it even harder for the range to recover when drought breaks.
Fortunate for us, we pregnancy scanned all the ewes that are due to lamb this spring. This allowed us to cull all our mature ewes that were not pregnant early this winter. As drought persisted, we culled the two-year old ewes that were also open. Then, we sorted off the thin ewes and twin-bearing ewes into a separate pasture to provide them with extra feed before lambing in March. If we can keep them in proper condition, the extra pound of energy these females get each day will more than pay itself back in the added lamb production. This strategy of separating singles and twin bearing ewes also ensures that the ewes that are physically hindered by late gestation of multiple fetus’ aren’t bullied off the feedline by the single carrying ewes who are stronger and more agile. Unfortunately splitting the flock spreads the guard dogs out a bit, but there is give and take with every management decision (insert cliché about “if it was easy…”).
As I talk with ranchers that have successfully navigated drought in the past, it seems that most good decisions are made early. Sometimes they don’t work out perfectly. But catastrophic effects of dealing with drought tend to occur to those that wait too long and are left with very few options. In hindsight I could have been a little timelier with this advice! Nonetheless, drought is something we have all endured before and will again. Every scenario in ranching is an opportunity to learn and this provides a good barometer for the resilience of your operation. With that said I absolutely hope that you all receive rain in the near future. But if you don’t, I hope that your recent decisions are wise ones and allow your sheep and goat operations to sustain themselves for generations to come.
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7324. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.