Hurricane Isaac eases drought in mid-Missouri

Sep 28, 2012
by DTN

Hurricanes rarely inspire thanksgiving, and Hurricane Isaac seemed to be no exception. The storm swept away lives and property down south, but it saved at least one Midwest rancher’s cows and hard-earned capital.

“I know it tore a lot of places up, but it sure saved us,” Brian Lease told DTN. He runs a herd of 220 mama cows on 800 acres outside Clark, MO, where Lease also operates a feed store, Central Missouri Feed and Supply. Although the drought was hard on the health of his herd, his fall calf crop, and his pocketbook, he’s optimistic that the worst is over.

After a devastating summer of scorched pastures and shrinking hay reserves, the Category 1 hurricane dumped 5 inches of rain on Lease’s land in late August and revitalized his carefully managed pastures.

Two-thirds of Lease’s cows calve in the spring, and the rest calve in late September. He backgrounds the calves for 40 to 60 days and takes pride in his reputation for delivering healthy, sturdy animals to his buyers by way of private treaty sales and the Callaway County Livestock Center. In addition to his 800 acres of pasture, Lease rents 300 acres for haying and runs six different herds through a constant rotation of 10- to 20-acre pastures. But by the end of July, he was running out of hay, corn prices were sky-bound, and his very pregnant cows needed expensive supplements to offset his droughty pastures.

“At that point, there was no rain, no hay, and I started calculating what I needed to get through the winter,” Lease said. He determined that he would have to sell his spring calves immediately after weaning in October and liquidate up to 20 mama cows and the 35 replacement heifers he usually keeps back. “I hate to sell cows,” Lease said. “That’s your factory.”

In a last-ditch attempt to find forage, he sought out some Conservation Reserve Program acres after the Emergency Haying and Grazing program opened up land in his area. The resulting bales were expensive but weedy. “In a normal year, I wouldn’t even use it if you gave it to me,” he said. “But it was something to fill them up, even if I had to add a lot of protein.”

Prices for the corn gluten pellets that Lease uses and sells added to the financial strain. Two years ago, he booked contracts for the pellets at $166 per ton. This year, his October-to-March bookings locked in at $330 per ton. “Everything just keeps going up,” he said. “You’ve really got to be doing everything just right to make it these days.”

Fortunately for Lease, the combination of his pasture rotation and the saving soak from Isaac took some of the financial pressure off his operation. The rain revitalized the grass, and his rotation program has allowed him to stockpile certain pastures for later fall months.

“I’m pretty optimistic we can make it through October before feeding hay, even without any more rain,” he said. “And we can even get through November into early December if it stays warm.”

Of course, expenses are still high, and cattle prices have yet to recover to their spring highs, Lease noted. “We won’t make much money this year, but I’m happy I don’t have to liquidate any cows.”

His fall calving season is wrapping up, and Lease said the high heat and droughty pastures were the likely culprits behind a fall calf crop with many early, smaller and weaker calves. He fed 80 pounds of gluten pellets each day to his fall mama cows for a month before calving, an expensive tactic that he believes prevented a far worse outcome. “They might need a little more TLC,” Lease said, but so far the mortality rate has been very low. “A lot of people around here have had pretty bad wrecks losing calves this fall,” he said.

The next test will be how well those fall calvers breed back after they finish calving in September. Lease uses a system of AI and clean-up bulls for his spring calvers, but only has time to put bulls on his fall calvers. “We bred back our fall cows 100 percent last year,” he said. “Boy, I’d like to see that again, but we’ll see.”

The heat was hard on all his cows, he noted, not just the fall calvers. Though he says his spring calvers are still 94 percent bred, other problems cropped up.

“Pinkeye was bad this year,” he said. “The grass was so dry and dusty that cows kicked up dust just walking across the pasture.” He dosed far above his normal levels. Lease said he’ll also supplement his herd’s mineral with tetracycline until the frost hits to guard against a local problem with anaplasmosis, an often fatal infectious disease that attacks red blood cells.

Lease says he’s careful not to abuse antibiotics. He worries that if restrictions tighten on their use, he’ll have trouble protecting his herd. But he’s already seeing the consequences of the overuse of some livestock treatments.

“Other people in our area are already having trouble with wormers; the worms are building up immunity, so we have to rotate those a lot. And it’s the same problem with the fly tags,” he said. He tries to use different worming brands between spring and fall doses and uses a three-year rotation of fly tags.

“But they just mutate and survive,” he said. “It’s going be quite a deal here soon.” — Emily Garnett, DTN