Welch Cattle Company is a family cow/calf operation that utilizes owned and leased range and forage resources in multiple states (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana). It is headed by John Welch, who was also President and CEO of Spade Ranches in Texas. Welch retired, passing on the Spade Ranches duties to his son, Wesley. In both operations, John Welch has implemented similar drought management strategies. This case study focuses on their operations in Texas and south-central Colorado.
- Native range in southeastern Colorado
Average Annual Precipitation: 13 inches for the region. Locally, the driest year on record (per Rocky Ford weather station reporting since 1908) was 2002 (4.0 inches), while the wettest year on record was 1941 (22.5 inches). 2012 and 2013 ranked as the second and fourth-driest years on record for the station. Semi-arid climate.
Range: Canyons and cedar breaks in a short grass environment. Mainly grama western wheat side oats.
• Pasture and crop ground in Texas
Average Annual Precipitation: 25.3 inches for the region. Locally, the driest year on record (per Abilene weather station reporting since 1944) was 1956 (9.8 inches), while the wettest year on record was 2015 (40.4 inches). Semi-arid climate.
Range: Central Rolling Red Plains, mixed-grass prairie. Small ponds are important for livestock water.
Other forage resources: Wheat pasture and oat pasture (some under irrigation pivots) for winter grazing.
Strategies for Preparing for Drought:
- Implement a grazing strategy. The Welches advocate rest-rotation or high intensity/low frequency grazing based on the principal of resting every pasture for a longer period of time than it is grazed, and staggering the times of year when particular pastures are grazed. "The grazing rotation system is a great help to get through dry periods. ...It stockpiles grass ahead of you. It's really significant in fairly arid climates. In southeast Colorado, we get about 13 inches of precipitation a year. And that grass tends to cure strong. It's grama grass, some buffalo and some western wheat, the sort of grasses that don’t get so high in cellulose and that tend to retain protein. So if I can stockpile grass out ahead of my grazing herd, then I can use it later on."
- Keep a moderate stocking rate. While some have advocated rotation grazing as a means to increase stocking rates, Welch cautions against the practice in semi-arid regions like his. “Rotation grazing works, but not to double stocking rates in a semi-arid region…. They say you can do it if you’re agile, but I think it leads to having to selling livestock when prices are low, and buying when prices are high. Then you’re broke.”
- Diversify grazing locations. Partnerships and leased lands in multiple states are part of the annual grazing plan, but also provide additional flexibility during drought events that are fairly localized. “In 2012, we were able to find grass for our replacement heifers. Yearling heifers are easier to haul around than pairs. We did also spend money moving some of our cow herd to summer pasture in different states and moving them back when the drought ended.”
- Pasture Range and Forage (PRF) Insurance. The Welches consider PRF insurance essential to their operation, and said the ultimate benefit of the program is keeping meat costs lower for consumers.
Critical decision-making dates and target conditions:
- End of May. April and May represent the bulk of their rainfall, and Welch said they can make drought management decisions fairly early. “When we don’t get (the April-May rain), we are counting on summer thunderstorms, and you know it’s going to be tough. You have to start begin practical at that point and say, odds are going down (for sufficient precipitation to produce forage).”
What is monitored and how:
- Range conditions and precipitation. Welch Cattle Company managers monitor as they move through rotated pastures, paying attention to precipitation and forage growth. Welch also pays attention to the forecasters on long-term weather trends like La Niña or El Niño. He is an advocate for frequently visiting the pastures. “Spend the time out there to see how forage is doing, how the cows are doing, and I think you’ll sense changes (in moisture and forage conditions) faster than someone else (or decision-support tools) can quantify.”
Strategies during drought:
- Planned de-stocking. Welch said that there is set order for moving or selling cattle. "We've got planned destocking. What I’ve found with the rotational grazing is you’ve got feedstock piled out ahead of you, and you can pretty well calculate, we’ll be in here roughly this long, here roughly this long. So you know that if you’ve gone all the way around the rotation and it hasn’t rained and there’s been no regrowth, you’ve used up that stockpile. So then you’ve got to destock. You’ve either got to do that or buy feed and haul it in. And I think everybody’s shown that buying feed is not economically feasible. So what we did is said ok, what do we sell, how do we plan our market." In order, they de-stock:
- Stocker cattle. "If you’ve got a combination of stocker and cow-calf operation, those stockers are your buffer group that is easy to either move or sell and not have to disturb your core cow herd.”
- Old cows. Selling or relocating the old cows.
- Bred heifers. "That seems terrible to do because that’s the future of your herd, but they are the most difficult to get rebred after they calve. They have to have the most nutrition in order to rebreed for their second calf, of anything that you own, so although you hate to give up on them, that was the next group to desctock."
- Young cows. “This is assuming you’ve taken out any unproductive cows or anything like that. Then you’ve got to start in on your youngest.”
- Yearling replacement heifers. Because of the partnerships they’ve developed over the years, and geographic diversity of owned and leased grounds, the Welch Cattle Company has some flexibility in moving cattle to better forage during drought. They are strategic about which classes of livestock they are willing to ship.
• Lease ground in less dry areas.
Lessons learned during drought:
- Move with the speed of the drought. In 2012, drought developed very quickly, and managers rapidly made decisions to move animals quickly. They used their drought plan, quickly moving through their prioritized classes. They did make a decision to spend money moving some of their cow herd to other locations, and then ship them back after the recovery. This was helpful because cattle prices rose extremely following the 2012 drought, and replacement cattle cost up to three times what the cow might have been worth prior.
- Evaluate and re-evaluate your drought plan. Welch has been satisfied with how their drought plan has worked, even during the extreme drought of 2012, and is not planning any major changes to it in the near future.
Some general recommendations:
- Be conservative in what you expect your ranch to support. “When figuring if you can make it on a ranch, don’t confuse average stocking rate with maximum stocking rate.”
- It doesn’t rain grass. "It's important to remember is it doesn’t rain grass. It rains water, and that grows grass, but not immediately. So you can’t say, whoa we got a half inch last night, we can quit moving cattle. It’s got to be something substantial that you know will grow some grass."
- Consider your grazing system. "I’m a believer in some sort of rest rotation grazing system. I think it increases the vigor of the plants and it makes them respond quicker when we do get rain."
- Partner up to prepare for drought. "We couldn’t have done it without the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)."
- Make your drought contingency plan ahead of time and write it down. "My recommendation would be to set down to make a list of here’s how we’d destock when it’s necessary. And everybody always says you never make a good decision in a drought and you never make a bad one when it’s raining, and that’s pretty much right. But you’ve got to start."