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Published January 28, 2013, 10:11 AM

Toughing it out

A cow-calf rancher braces for drought.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WATERTOWN, S.D. — These days, Bill Slovek, who ranches with his wife, Connie, and son, Bob, north of Philip, S.D., is an eastern South Dakota cattleman. It’s temporary and not his first choice, but it’s a way of keeping ahead of the drought and poising for a recovery.

Slovek, a former president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, talked about his drought defensive moves at the recent Northern States Beef Conference in Watertown, S.D.

He normally maintains 900 cow-calf pairs and 300 yearlings on a good year in Haakon County. Using rotational grazing, he typically does that on a land base of 18 acres per pair. The family manages 66 pastures. They synchronize breeding and artificially inseminate more than 1,000 head per year.

The Sloveks are used to dealing with volatility. In 2005, they had 16 inches of rain and put up 2,200 bales. The next year, they had just over half an inch less moisture and didn’t get a bale. “It’s not how much moisture you get, it’s when you get it,” he says.

In 2011, they had the best grass they ever had, but then the drought started. They went from 21.65 inches in 2011 to 9.67 inches in 2012.

“It was absolutely the best grass year we’ve had, and the worst grass year we’ve had, back-to-back,” Slovek says. “The big thing is (getting) April, May, June moisture. If you don’t get it in our country, you’re in trouble.”

He calculates that grass production in 2012 was about one-fourth what he achieved in 2011. In 2012, the Sloveks had a hard freeze at the end of May.

They were hailed-out on summer pasture on June 9, and then came the drought.

Slovek says he’s getting stubborn about fighting the drought and keeping his cow herd.

Here’s the progression of defensive and offensive steps he’s taken:

•October 2011 — Slovek bought a neighbor’s Conservation Reserve Program hay for $20 a bale. Slovek already had more hay than he’d ever had, and some people at the time were selling hay to Texas.

•December 2011 — He rented extra pasture land that he wouldn’t have needed in a normal year.

•April 2012 — Slovek found more summer pasture.

•May 2012 — He sold cull cows and cows without calves that he usually would have sold in late June.

•June 2012 — Slovek sorted out older cow-calf pairs.

•July 2012 — He sold old cows, keeping calves. He usually starts selling 11-year-old cows in August, when the market is good. “The last couple years, the calf market was good so I didn’t do that, so I had three years of old cows,” Slovek says. He weaned calves at 90 days without trouble.

He also shortened heifer breeding season. Normally, the Sloveks put bulls with heifers for three estrus cycles to give them chances to be bred. This year, they put them out for one cycle. They ultrasound tested them three weeks sooner than normal and the open heifers went to the feedlot, off the grass.

Additionally, Slovek found some hailed-out winter wheat hay to buy and started putting out feelers for a fall and winter home for his cows. About 90 percent of his herd has been moved to a location 15 miles northwest of Watertown. They’ll come home to Philip around March 1, before calving starts. If Slovek thinks he won’t get a good hay crop, he’ll fight the drought with a two-year supply of hay on hand.

Also in July 2012, he called a feedlot for early calf delivery (Sept. 1 versus mid-October.)

•August 2012 — Slovek contracted a quonset full of dried distillers grain. “It was high, then but it got a lot higher, so that saved some money taking early delivery on that,” he says.

He then started pre-conditioning calves a month early and ultrasound checked heifers, shipping those without calves to the feedlot.

•Late August and early September, 2012 — He started relocating cows and calves for fall and winter.

•Januaryy 2013 – Slovek shipped light calves that normally would be run on grass to a background-feeder.

By shipping the cow herd to the Watertown area, Slovek figures he’d spent another $40,000 on his feed bills, but he’s kept his pastures healthy so they will rebound when and if rain comes.

If the drought continues in 2013, he’ll keep no grass calves because they’ve been shipped to a backgrounder. They’ll only keep artificially inseminated heifers. All cows will return to the ranch for calving and breeding.

“I think the writing’s on the wall this year that even if we have normal moisture, we’re not going to have normal grass,” Slovek says. “With the prices we’re looking at, I want to keep the cow herd intact. We shipped the grass cattle to the feedlot already, and we’re trying to grow them slow to get them into the fourth quarter (of 2013) to finish” when the futures market looks better.

“I can fight it this year and I can ship the cows out next year and still have hay left and after that, I’ll probably be out of bullets,” Slovek says. “I’m doing everything I can do to keep the cow herd intact because it won’t do any good to have high-priced calves if you don’t own any cows.”