This past Friday was a tough day. I had been dreading the day for some time, although I knew it was coming up on the horizon. With each passing day of extreme heat and no rain, I watched my paddocks of grass dry and turn into nothing more than kindling for a fire.
Warm season pastures that normally carried my small herd through the hottest of summer months never materialized. Cool season grasses that greened up early this season, provided some April grazing, but fizzled out in the summer sun.
One producer who has been rotational grazing his herds for years told me that even management intensive grazing relies on rainfall to rejuvenate grazed paddocks. Without precipitation, nothing grows, whether it is rested or not. Cover crops, nurse crops, pulse crops, late season forage crops and even weeds need rain to grow.
So, a few weeks back, I knew the day was coming when I would run out of grass. We grazed grass in our orchard, around our farmstead and in our shelterbelts. This week, there was literally nothing left for the cows.
Early Friday morning, my neighbor helped me move my cows into the barn. When the semi-trailer drove on the farm, my heart sank to my knees. The cows and their calves loaded up the chute and onto the trailer in the early morning sun, bidding farewell to the only farm they had ever known.
I sold my cows to slaughter and my feeder calves as well. In both cases, the animals brought much less than they would have a month ago. But, without any grass anywhere near us, prices have slumped and buying expensive hay is not even an option.
I was able to keep a few young heifers that I will feed forages to and graze on the little remaining pasture I have left. Other than those few head, every critter was sold.
As I sat in the seats at the auction market, I remembered how I had started my herd when I was in high school, purchasing a few purebred heifers from a neighboring farmer as an FFA project. Although the herd never grew very large by Nebraska Sandhills standards, we did rely on the sale of those feeder calves as an important part of our farm income. I remembered the hours I spent with my father checking cattle and fixing creek fences. I recalled many evening rides with my wife and children checking water tanks and baby calves in the pasture.
It’s all a part of life. Tough, dry years help us remember that we really aren’t in charge. Someone else holds that duty. We need to appreciate the rains, and never take our crops, soil, land, water or livestock for granted. It can all be taken away so quickly.
Hopefully, when the rains come again, we can rebuild our little herd into what it was. Maybe the cows we save will be even more productive than those that we sold. But it still stings a bit to see those friendly cow faces go, because I had worked hard to take good care of them over the years and had become so accustomed to them as part of our farm life.
Be sure to watch www.nebraskafarmer.com and our August print issue of Nebraska Farmer for more news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Check out the Farm Progress drought site at www.DatelineDrought.com.