Have a Drought Management Plan for Your Cow/Calf Enterprise

Drought seems to happen somewhere every year. The key to getting a cow/calf enterprise through drought conditions is to have a management plan. Drought forces forage/livestock producers to develop strategies that deal with indirect economic and biological effects of animals for the available feed resources as well as direct effects of reduced water supply for plants and animals. Trying to feed the whole herd through a drought with purchased feeds can be financial suicide, especially if drought conditions last over more than one growing season. Many strategies can be used to reduce forage demand. Drought management strategies can be subdivided into three categories: livestock inventory; use of existing forage resources; and alternative feeding programs.

Adjusting Livestock Inventory

Adjusting livestock inventory to reduce and balance total forage required with available forage supply usually is the most economical alternative. Individual production records come in handy to identify low producing females. Cull late calving cows, older cows, and less productive cows. Cull early to avoid selling when prices are low because everyone else is selling. Consider culling females that are in the bottom 15% to 20% of production for two to three years in succession. These females may be telling you that they don't "fit" for some reason. If there is a time when individual records are valuable in management decisions, this is one. Depopulation is the initial step in adjusting livestock inventory to forage availability.

Typically drought is not a wide-spread climatic condition. It may be economical to secure pasture in another part of the state or in a surrounding state. If this is an option, make sure all parties understand the terms of the pasture lease and who monitors the cattle and checks water and puts out mineral. If there are cows that are relocated and a portion that remain at the "home" place, have a biosecurity plan for when the relocated cattle return. The plan should include not co-mingling the cows for a period of time after they return. Consult your veterinarian to help in designing a plan.

Remove yearlings from pasture early and sell or drylot. One of the advantages of having a yearling enterprise along with a cow/calf enterprise is if pasture becomes limited, yearlings can be sold or moved to the feedlot and the calf making factory can be kept intact.

Usually in drought conditions, early weaning calves are more effective than creep feeding. Lactational pressure is not removed from the dam when calves are creep-fed. Data from the University of Illinois indicates early-weaned calves are efficient at converting feed to calf gain. If calves are early weaned, consider retaining them to take advantage of the efficient gain. Another reason to consider retaining early-weaned calves is they are light at weaning and, if sold right off the cow, usually don't generate enough dollars the cover annual cow costs. There is a body of data that indicates that early weaned calves exposed to high energy diets soon after weaning have a high propensity to grade USDA Choice or higher. Know your annual cow/calf enterprise production costs and determine when calves should be marketed for the greatest potential profit. With the current prices of light-weight calves, this must be thought through carefully. Finally, data would suggest that for every 2.5 days that a calf is weaned from the dam, there is one more day of grazing available for the cow. Data collected at the University of Nebraska indicate that 250 to 350 pound calves will consume about 5 pounds of grass daily on a dry matter basis. There is also a saving in forage intake between a lactating and nonlactating female. Bred cows can get by on minimal forage if not suckling calves.

Consider not keeping or keeping fewer replacement heifers. It may be more economical to retain young, healthy, open cows instead of heifers. When considering this management strategy, make certain that the nonpregnant cows that are being considered were not pregnant because of a disease problem. Consult your veterinarian to assure that there is not a health concern. Biosecurity at the ranch is important. Heifers require high quality feeds and forages and this expense is costly without a calf for income. In addition, first-calf-cows will wean the lightest calves and at a time when an operation is managing through drought conditions by reducing cow numbers, having more running age cows will result in the greatest pounds of calf weaned.

Use of Existing Forages

Use existing forage resources efficiently. It seems that the greatest benefit of cross-fencing pastures and having a rotational grazing system occurs when managing through drought conditions. Grazing systems don't have to be extensive, but allowing pastures to have a rest period in drought condition aids grass persistence. In addition, if carrying capacity is lowered during drought, improved grazing management minimizes the impact of drought on grasses. Consider some of the following grazing management techniques during drought. Delay turn-out to permanent pastures by feeding carryover hay or by grazing meadows, early alfalfa growth, or winter cereal grain pastures. A 1- to 2-week delay in turn-out can increase forage production 10 percent or more when soil moisture is limited. When considering this option, consider the trade-off between forage quality and forage yield. You could also flip this management consideration and graze the grass early knowing there is a reduction in yield and keep the hay to feed later. Construct temporary cross-fences within larger pastures to concentrate grazing. This encourages cattle to more completely use whatever forage available and defers grazing on the other pastures, allowing them to accumulate more growth before being grazed. Be sure to provide enough time for adequate plant recovery before grazing the pasture again. Skim or flash graze each pasture very briefly with a high concentration of livestock early in the grazing season to use plants that otherwise would become mature and left ungrazed if grazing is delayed. Typical examples include sedges, cheatgrass and downy brome, bluegrass, and early forbs. Temporary electric fencing and hauling water may be needed to control when and where cattle graze certain areas. Be especially cautious of poisonous plants as well as nitrates, prussic acid, and grass tetany. Some plants that are not normally consumed may poison livestock when forage supply is low. Avoid overgrazing rangeland, otherwise recovery following drought will be slow and production depressed for an extended time. Time grazing in pastures with questionable water supply or quality early in the grazing season when water demand by cattle will be less.

Alternate Feeding Opportunities

Additional forage supplies can be developed. These options, though, must be chosen with great care because they may be expensive relative to other alternatives, such as de-stocking or relocating cows. Following are some forage feeding opportunities. Cut winter wheat for hay instead of grain, especially if low grain yields are expected and price is low. Oats could be planted as early as possible for grazing or for hay. Oats use spring moisture very efficiently to produce forage. Use alfalfa for pasture instead of hay. In this situation, other winter feed supplies will be needed. Protect cattle from bloat. Consider green-chopped alfalfa or hay meadows and feed daily instead of grazing or harvesting as hay. This minimizes losses and stretches feed supply to its maximum, but it can be expensive. Plant summer annual forage grasses like sudangrass and millets. These plants are drought resistant but will need some summer moisture for economical growth. Always test summer annuals for nitrates. If nitrates are high, mix with low nitrate feeds and adapt cows. Graze corn, especially dryland corn with depressed yields. Corn provides high carrying capacity and quality for a "salvage" operation, but cross-fence and introduce cattle slowly to avoid digestive problems.

If there is grass still available in the pasture, then supplementation with grain such as corn is not recommended to extend the pasture. Supplementing corn will actually reduce forage digestibility. Also, supplementation with a protein cube will not reduce forage intake, actually it will increase forage intake and therefore not extend the pasture. Because of the dry conditions, grasses tend to produce a seed-head earlier than usual; quality is likely lower than anticipated. To extend existing pasture, feeding alfalfa hay because it provides some protein and energy, but also fills the rumen and reduces pasture intake. Basically, alfalfa is being substituted for pasture. If pasture is available and you want to extend the pasture, feed 4 to 6 pounds of alfalfa per head per day. Alfalfa could be fed three times a week to save on fuel and labor. Grain co-products are feeds to consider when trying to extend existing pasture. Grain co-products do not reduce digestibility of forages, so feeding them in a diet that is primarily forage will not have any negative associative effects. There is research being conducted at the University of Nebraska evaluating the use of grain co-products mixed with low quality forages as a feed to extend existing pasture in cattle grazing situations.

Dry-lotting cows may be an option in drought conditions. Distillers grains and corn are high in energy fees and diets that have these feeds in them will not need to be fed to the animals' full daily intake while still meeting their nutrient needs. It is important when feeding limit-fed high-energy rations that there is plenty of bunk space (28 to 36 inches per head of bunk space) so boss cows don't get more than their share and the timid, young cows get thin. Having plenty of bunk space when limit feeding high grain diet will help manage around the possibility of subacute acidosis if one or more cows eat more than their share of a high grain diet. The concentrate part of the ration will supply the energy and protein needs and the forage, medium to low quality forage is used so that rumen health is not compromised. Consider including a supplement that contains an ionophore. An ionophore will help reduce the occurrence of subacute acidosis and increase efficiency of use of the ration by the cows. Because these rations supply all the nutrients, they need to be fed daily. For the first week, consider feeding 50% of the ration in the morning and 50% of the ration in the evening. After a week, it is probably more economical to feed the ration once a day. Because cows are not fed to capacity, they will seem hungry, but should adapt in about 10 to 14 days. Lots or exercise pastures will need to have good fences. If straw or cornstalk bales are available and they are inexpensive, consider letting cows have access to these forages as filler to the main diet if cows have trouble adapting to limit-fed diets. In this feeding situation, it may be best to early wean the calf.

Have a management plan and be prepared to implement it when a drought occurs. There are economical options to keep the productive cows in the herd. Records will be critical in drought situations, both from a cow culling and pasture management standpoint. Be creative in designing feeding alternatives.

May 2011

Dr. Rick Rasby
Dr. Rick Rasby, Professor of Animal Science
Animal Science, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Lincoln, NE