By EVERETT BRAZIL, III
Bill Dill discovered how expensive a drought can be when he spent a fortune to feed his cattle in 2011. But those lessons were not in vain, and he has learned from them to improve his operation in 2012 -- another very dry year.
Dill farms around Hollis, in the far southwestern corner of Oklahoma. He typically produces about 850 acres of irrigated cotton and dryland wheat. Roughly 1,000 acres are devoted to hay or grazing, including alfalfa, which feeds his cattle operation. Nothing was spared in 2011.
"Last year was hot and dry, and all of our irrigation water disappeared early. We lost most of our alfalfa crop and hay forage, and all of our cotton crop from the high temperatures and low water table," he said.
To compensate for the lost forage, he sank a lot of money into packaged products, including cotton seed cake and imported hay bales.
Spending the money on the feed was difficult, and proved to be cost prohibitive when transportation costs were counted.
"We shipped in a lot of hay and cotton seed products, and when you do that, the cost triples," he said.
The only option was to sell part of his herd, which he reduced by one-third.
Dill also found new ways to face the drought this season. He baled more forage, including cotton, wheat and hay grazer, to reduce transportation costs. He also delayed cultivating his wheat fields after harvest to take advantage of the stubble and weeds to feed the cattle. His pastures were sprayed for weeds to encourage forage growth, and he is waiting as long as he can to move his cattle to those pastures to gain as much plant growth as he can.
"We normally start cultivating or spraying for weed control (after harvest). This year, we fenced it and turned cattle out there to try to get that extra month of grazing, and let the grass rest," he said. "It got us 30 days."
But it has not been enough.
He is now facing selling another one-third of his herd to stretch his hay stock into the winter. Most of the calves are going to auction, leaving him with a slimmer herd of heifers to rebuild in the spring. If rain returns, he believes he will survive, but it all hinges on the return of fall precipitation to produce wheat pasture.
"We got some timely (spring) rain that let us make a good wheat crop, but there was no runoff for our ponds to fill up, which also recharges our aquifer," he said. "I suspect if we get a fall rain for winter wheat pasture, I will be able to hold my cattle. If we don't get timely rain to sow early wheat, I suspect other cattle will be sold."