Scott Herrick knows the weather can change quickly in his region where the Corn Belt meets the High Plains. The Franklin, Nebraska, farmer and cattleman has seen firsthand how increased moisture so far this growing season has affected how much pasture and rangeland grass cattleman will see and even how they will graze the grass.
“It has been a dramatic difference over the last few months,” Herrick told DTN.
Heading into spring, the region was fairly dry and the grass was short. Producers really didn’t know what they were going to feed their cow/calf herds, he said. Then, in the spring months, the moisture returned and the grass turned green and grew.
Bryce Anderson, DTN senior ag meteorologist, said south-central Nebraska and north-central Kansas have seen more moisture this spring into early summer than they saw over several months stretching back to last fall.
According to precipitation totals from the High Plains Regional Climate Center, nearby Red Cloud had a precipitation total from September 2014 to February 2015 of 4.63 inches, or 0.77 inch per month, Anderson said. From March on, Red Cloud has seen 9.65 inches, with 3.47 inches in April and 3.81 inches in May.
“Blue Hill had a September-to-May total of 3.73 inches, or 0.62 inch per month. March-through-June numbers so far are 11.02 inches with a huge 5.06 inches in June,” Anderson said. “Red Cloud by comparison had just 1.78 inches in June; the stations are not that far apart, but rainfall can vary.”
Across the border into Kansas, rains have also fallen recently. Smith Center had September-to-February totals of 3.84 inches with 0.64 inch per month. March-through-June precipitation totals are currently 10.35 inches with 6.34 inches of that total coming in May, he said.
Rachael Boyle, Kansas State University Extension educator located in the Phillips Rooks District Extension office in Stockton, said it was a fairly dry winter and it was also a dry start to spring. It was so dry, in fact, that she held informational meetings for cattlemen to discuss how they could drylot cow/calf pairs profitably with the higher cattle prices.
The region has been in the grip of a multi-year drought. Boyle said the last three to four years have been tough on the region’s grasslands, and cattlemen in the area were shrinking their herds as the amount of grass and forages dwindled.
“Then, in mid-May, we started seeing the much-welcome moisture and we have continued to see it here into June,” Boyle told DTN.
Herrick, who has both a seedstock herd as well as a commercial cow/calf herd, said many cattle producers in his home area were on the verge of a possible sell-off this spring because of the continuing dry conditions. While cattle prices were high, the lack of grass and forages was weighing heavily on producers.
“I know some guys were considering drylotting some cows because of lack of grass, but I think around here we would have seen some cows just going to town,” Herrick said.
Now that most of the region has seen increased moisture levels, cattlemen are doing all they can to take advantage of the grass now growing. Boyle said she sees many producers using rotational grazing as well as reducing the number of head grazing in many locations to conserve the grass that is now present.
“Because it has been so dry in recent years, some have decided to utilize rotational grazing and/or reduced grazing numbers 10% to 20% just to be on the safe side,” she said. “They are just trying to utilize the grass as good as they can.”
Expansion in cow/calf country has been a hot topic over the last year or so as cattlemen kept heifers back because of high cattle prices as well as continued moisture in many locales.
John Harrington, DTN livestock analyst, believes the areas that will see the largest increase in cattle numbers will be those same regions that lost cattle numbers due to the drought over the last five to 10 years.
“We lost a lot of cattle in the Southern Plains states of Oklahoma and Texas, and other states like Missouri lost some large numbers as well,” Harrington said. “I think these are the areas in which will see the larger share of expansion.”
Harrington said areas of the High Plains and Corn Belt could also contribute to the expansion of the nation’s cow/calf herd, but for the most part, the Southern Plains region will be the driver. The fact Nebraska and Kansas cattlemen were willing to drylot cow/calf pairs shows there are some profits to be had in the business, he said.
Herrick said future expansion plans by cattlemen in his region will depend on how much rain continues to fall and how much grass and forages are available. If moisture stays through the summer, he would not be surprised to see producers try to move forward on running more cattle next year.
“On the seedstock side, I see cattlemen are very willing to pay for quality genetics,” he said. “I think if we get to August and we are OK with moisture, then you could see guys considering adding to their herds.”
Boyle said if the weather continues to provide moisture the region could see “some” expansion of the beef cow herd. However, she is cautious on the idea that much more cattle could be grazing in north-central Kansas.
“The big unknown is the weather,” Boyle said. “If it turns dry again, we won’t see it, but if we continue to see some moisture, then this could signal expansion.”