For 33,000 Arkansas beef cattle producers, spring is a critical time. Spring weather is highly changeable. Temperature and rainfall swings can have important implications for cattle producers for the remainder of the year.

Pastures provide the most economical feed supply for beef cattle.

Depending on the weather, cattle producers may or may not be able to apply weed control or fertilizer in a timely manner to enhance forage growth for summer grazing.

Providing quality and quantity forage growth plays an important role in beef cow nutrition and performance. With good pasture conditions, cattle can perform at their genetic potential. This genetic potential can result in higher reproduction rates, which will affect income next year, and higher weaning weights, which will result in needed fall income.

On the other hand, if a spring is drier than normal and night temperatures are cooler than normal, forage growth can be delayed. This can result in lower reproductive rates, drought conditions going into the typical lower rainfall months of the summer and reduced weaning weights.

The 2004 springtime conditions can affect not only this year's cattle situation but next year's situation as well.

The cost of growing, cutting, baling, storing and feeding is substantial — with cost estimates ranging from $40 to $80 per ton. It's critical to harvest the highest quality hay and package the hay so that the beef herd can take advantage of the nutrient value of the hay. Spring conditions can certainly affect hay quality and quantity.

No single factor affects the quality of hay as much as the maturity of the forage. As plants mature, the proportion of less digestible stem is increased compared to the more desirable leaf material. It's not uncommon for crude protein and TDN (total digestible nutrients) values to decrease 50 percent and 27 percent, respectively as plants mature.

Increased proportion of stem usually results in higher concentrations of fiber and lower concentrations of crude protein. Unfortunately, management for optimal quality is tempered by the need to allow adequate initial growth for quantity and either adequate re-growth or harvest intervals to maintain plant vigor in the stand.

If spring rainfall is more than normal, it becomes hard for cattle producers to harvest high-quality hay. If spring rainfall is below normal, hay quantity becomes a potential problem and perhaps the hay supply may not supply all the cow herd's needs for winter.

Most of the state received adequate rainfall in April. With the high winds many producers are experiencing, pastures and hay meadows can dry rather quickly. If additional rain doesn't occur in May, cattle producers may have to prepare for a long, dry summer. If normal rainfall occurs in May, cattle producers may be in store for an excellent year.


Tom Troxel is a beef cattle specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. email: ttroxel@uaex.edu