Trying to raise grass-fed animals in a severe drought
June 21, 2021
Our area's drought and our farm's hay situation is becoming an all consuming issue for us at the moment. We are blessed to be in an area that is only in severe drought, when so much of the west is in extreme and exceptional drought situations. It's weird to be saying we are lucky it's severe, but so many places have it even worse than we do!
For us the drought is manifesting as SEVERE underproduction of hay which we need to keep our mother and meat animals fed the 5/6 or so months of the year when they can't graze for themselves.
Our second best set of hay fields yielded just 24% of the hay they produced last year. There is not enough to cut on most of the Meadow property's hay fields so we will harvest what did grow by grazing it. John just started haying Mrs P's acreage, thank goodness we get to lease her land, but it is already showing drought stress so it won't provide the bumper crop we need. Before starting at Mrs P's we have just 6% of the hay we would need for a normal winter.
We are doing everything we can think of to find land to hay, and to find someone willing and able to sell us their excess hay (assuming they are able to make some) but there is almost no hay on the market and what there is is going for twice the normal price. Irrigators in our area are not getting their normal amount of water (some reduced by 50% or so, while others are not as severely reduced) and so the yields of hay will be down significantly in our area. Some friends are already feeding their cattle and will have to feed all summer and all winter - I truly don't know how they are 1) finding the hay and 2) affording purchasing it. We livestock people are not the only ones impacted as much of the grain crops are showing drought stress and we've heard concerns about a lack of enough water to finish a potato crop.
So we are also making plans to reduce our herds significantly - meat steers, lambs, cows and ewes. We are blessed to have some sub irrigated meadows which are currently doing okay and our wells and solar pumps are not dry (many local springs are dry) so we have more feed than many, as of right now. Before we started haying the guess was that we'd have to reduce by half, but with the yields we are getting and the lack of hay to purchase it may have to be more severe than that.
The effects of this reduction of our herd size will affect our supply of beef ready for harvest for multiple years. We expect to have to sell some of the steers which would be harvested in 2022 and 2023. In addition, we will have significantly less cows calving in 2022. Once the drought ends and we can rebuild our cow herd numbers, it will take up to 4 years for a heifer kept as a cow translate into an additional meat steer ready for harvest. We will likely be able to find some calves raised with out antibiotics or hormones which we can finish on pasture/hay to supplement our numbers once the drought breaks. We can rebuild our sheep numbers much faster, as many ewes will lamb at one year of age, and sheep often have twins. But unfortunately since one cow eats as much as 5 sheep its the cattle that we really have to sell to reduce the hay demand.
We will be trying to preserve our ability to serve our customers, while maintaining quality, and of course, animal and land stewardship. We will be trying to get just the right number of animals of each age group to balance demand with our current feed, and the hay we hope to be able to purchase. Having a firmer idea of what demand may be going forward would help us with this. We have quite a few beef that are nearly ready for harvest, and it looks like we will have the feed to keep them going until their appointed harvest date in the coming summer/early fall months. The price we need to charge for these animals is known because their feed/pasture costs are known. We are unsure what price we will need to charge later in the year to cover whatever hay we end up finding for our animals.
It is likely unavoidable that we will have to sell some of our lambs, calves and older meat steers and have them go to feedlots and onto a grain fed diet. We are looking at having to wean a portion of the lambs and calves as early as possible and at that young age they will need the higher calorie diet afforded by grain to mature normally. Even if we could find a grass-fed producer to buy them i don't believe the early weaned animals would do very well on an all forage diet. Unfortunately some of our older but not yet elderly cows and ewes will also be sold and will go for slaughter years before their productive lives would normally come to an end.
You are probably wondering how on earth you can help our farm get thru this. And the truth is we don't fully know yet. We are currently focused on carefully utilizing what feed we do have, putting up what little hay we can and moving as many of the ready for harvest animals from our pastures into your freezers. We are exploring subscriptions and other avenues where we can give you some price and supply security and we can feel comfortable investing in keeping an animal thru the drought because we know it will have a home in various freezers. We have a good supply of beef and lamb in the butcher's freezer now and the more of it we move to your freezers the more animals we can harvest and store temporarily before getting it to other customers. If you are planning to purchase a quarter, half or whole beef in 2021 and you can take it earlier that would help. If you just know you will need meat in approx Nov/Dec getting a deposit now for it will help us plan. We can currently honor our pricing as of the time that the deposit is received.
All of this feels catastrophic and overwhelming, We are trying to remember that "this too shall pass" and shift our paradigms to see new opportunities in this stressful situation. Our predecessors got thru this kind of thing and rebuilt, and we can too if we are smart and work hard together. Five generations have survived and thrived on this land and in this county for 150 years...if we are prudent we can ensure there will be many more good years.
A sausage update: I'll be going this week to Springville to collect 2 varieties of beef and 2 varieties of lamb sausages. So beef bratwurst and beef mango habanero bratwurst as well as Lamb herbs de provance and Italian Lamb sausages will be available beginning this Saturday. These guys charge a bit more to make the sausages so the price will probably be a little bit higher. I've got to do some math ASAP. I'm taking down lamb and beef belly meat so look for BACON soon!
On behalf of all of us farmer/rancher types please use extreme care when recreating/traveling. One dragging chain can create a spark which burns a field or a hay stack and destroys a livelihood. Parking on dry grass is also an issue...not that you can park in the middle of the road...but hot engines and mufflers and car/ATV parts and dry forage don't mix well when the forage is SOO dry. While there has been a lightening strike in a CRP field to our west that was quickly put out, we have not had much of an issue with fire...yet.
We sincerely thank you for choosing to let us be your family's ranchers! We work hard to be good stewards to the animals in our care and to leave the land in better condition than when we started. We also try hard to provide you with good customer service. We know you have many farms to choose from and we are thankful that you've selected us.
We hope you are all doing well. Please pray for moisture and good judgement as we decide what to do to cope this situation.
Thank you for supporting our family farm!
John, Lori Anne, Tom & Becca
Lau Family Farm, LLC