Management Considerations When Relocating Beef Cows in Drought Conditions

Management Considerations When Relocating Beef Cows in Drought Conditions

Drought management plans

Keep the plan flexible. If there is some moisture received and relocation is part of the drought management plan, maybe you don't have to relocate the whole herd. If weather conditions do change, total implementation of the drought plan may not be needed. In Nebraska, it is important to identify when (dates) to begin implementation of the drought plan. In the Sandhills of Nebraska if we get "w" inches of rain by "x" date then "y" amount of forage will be produced and generate enough forage to for "z" AUMs. Ask your University pasture/forage specialist or person at NRCS for that information. An example, if we don't get a certain amount of moisture by May we are probably looking at reduced forage production in our pastures, at least in the Sandhills of Nebraska. This kind of strategy needs to be included in a drought management plan. In the drought management plan, include options of relocation and depopulation.

If you don't have a plan then you are hoping for the best. Without a drought plan you typically wait too long to react. Have in the drought management plans the date to begin to depopulate or relocate cows. If herd depopulation needs to occur, implement this strategy prior to the time everyone else is going to depopulate. As more cows enter the market and are sold, price will decrease.

One of the primary objectives for the cow/calf enterprise is to stay profitable during a drought. This is usually a challenge as harvested forages are in low supply causing the cost of these forages to be expensive. In addition, fuel cost to get forages transported adds cost to the forages, especially if the forages need to be hauled any distance and with the price of fuel.

Strategies to keep the herd intact

An important resource in a ranch operation is the forage/pasture. In drought conditions, consider how to minimize the negative impact on grazed forage resource. Some of the soils that we manage are fairly fragile, especially when you think about soils similar to those in the Sandhills of Nebraska that are sand. These pastures cannot be overgrazed because of the number of years it takes to get them back to be productive after over-grazing.

Relocation to Pastures

Relocation may include all or part of your herd. If there are guidelines based on moisture received by a certain time of the year as it relates to forage production in pastures, use this information to help when making relocations decisions. Using this information will give you a pretty good idea the need to relocate all or part of the herd.

Relocation would include:

  • Secure pastures elsewhere.
  • Secure/build pen space on your site
       · An easy to renovate pasture will be sacrificed.
  • Secure pen space in a feedlot.
       · In the summer time, the numbers in the feedlot go down and there may be an opportunity to bring cows into a feedlot?

When relocating the cow herd to another location within the same state or another state, producers need to go through a checklist:

  • Who is responsible for checking on the cattle?
  • Who is responsible for checking on the water?
  • Who is responsible for checking the mineral/salt?
  • Who is responsible for checking and repairing fence?
  • Who is responsible for doctoring sick cattle?
  • If cattle are transported across state lines, are there any restrictions, animal identification or health information needed before they can be transported?

Sometimes produces are in a hurry and don't have these items in line before relocating the cattle. Know something about the area that the cattle will be relocated to. As an example, relocating to a state like Missouri may pose challenges for the cow herd. A primary grass in pastures in Missouri is fescue. If the fescue is endophyte infected and cows graze it at certain times of the year, the endophyte can have a negative impact on reproduction. Knowing this kind of information will help determine if the cows would be relocated before or after the breeding season.

There are a number of key points that will need to be addressed on a pasture lease agreement.

1. List name of land owner and cattle owner.
2. A description of the property. A legal description will work.
3. General Terms
    a. Terms of the lease - annual or multi-year
    b. When will the grazing season start and end
    c. Rental Rate and when payment is due
        · Flat fee per acre or as a whole
        · Fee per head per month
        · Based on a price per pounds gained
    d. Review of the lease - how often; lead time for termination
    e. Amendments - when can they be made
    f. Binding on heirs
    g. Transfer of property - how does this affect the lease
    h. Right of entry to the property
    i. Stocking rate
        · Class of livestock - cows, cow/calf pairs, bulls, yearlings, etc
    j. Operation and maintenance
        · Fencing
        · Water
        · Salt
        · Animal Health
        · Livestock handling facility
        · Counting cattle

A biosecurity plan is necessary in the drought management plan, especially when cows return to the ranch. The diseases that were once regional now appear to be more wide-spread. When cattle are relocated, are they going to be co-mingled with another group of cattle? If you relocated part of your herd, when they are brought back to the ranch, can they be quarantined from the rest of the herd for some period of time from a biosecurity standpoint to make sure they are disease-free.

Dry-lotting Cows

Feedlots may be a location to relocate cows during a drought for spring and summer. Cow-calf producers need to learn about the feedlot before they relocate to such a location. They need to know:

  • Diet that will be fed and cost.
  • When will they receive, how often will they receive and when do they need to pay their feed bill.
  • What other costs will be charged?
        · What is yardage?
  • Who determines health treatment.
  • Biosecurity  - will there be other cows fed with their cows. How will your cows be separated from their feeder cattle?

It is a challenge for feedlot managers not to try to "fatten" the cows. Cows fed in a dry lot need to fed to achieve or are maintained a body condition score 5 (1= very thin; 9 = obese). Feed cows based on their needs.

Conducting a breeding season in a drylot can be a real challenge. Try to get the breeding accomplished before the cows relocate to the feedlot. If this is not possible, AI may be an option. If AI is used, there will still need to be a natural service component as not all cows will conceive to AI. Corner-off a part of the pen with an electric fence so the calves can walk under the fence and have an area where they can get away from the breeding activity and not get hurt.

A producer could dry-lot cows at their location. In this case, a pasture may be sacrificed as a dry lot for the cows. In eastern Nebraska that would be a brome pasture. It appears that a brome grass pasture can get pretty beat up and with a little fertilizer and some rain, it tends to come back next year.

Again, when breeding in a drylot, AI may be an option and can work well. Consider an estrous synchronization program. Natural service can work and will be needed to at least follow an AI program as not all cows will conceive to AI. Be prepared for more injuries not only to the cow but also to the calf. Again, partition off a corner of the drylot so the calves are the only ones who can access this area. This gives them an opportunity to get away from the cows and bulls during the breeding time period.

guidelines for limit-fed rationsBecause forages are usually limited and expensive during drought, consider limit feeding the cows when they are dry-lotted. The table at right gives guidelines on considerations when designing a limit-fed diet.

The table indicates that all diets, even limit-fed diets, need to contain some forage. The forages in these rations are needed reduce rumen function problems, maintain rumen integrity, and keep the rumen healthy. Lactating cows with high milk ability will need more grain compared to cows that give less milk. Distillers grains and distillers grains mixed with forage combinations can be used in limit-fed diets. Limit-fed diets that include distillers grains and forage are in the 2009 Nebraska Beef Report (PDF).

If cows are fed a limit-fed diet, some considerations are:

  • The machinery to deliver it.
  • If you set yourself up at your place leave plenty of bunk space, about 30-36" per head.
  • If grain is fed on the ground, account for losses.
  • Be consistent with the amount delivered. Deliver the amount that is needed to be delivered on that day. If the ration calls for 12 lbs. of corn, that doesn't mean feed 6 lbs. one day and 12 lbs. the next. Be consistent in regard to the amount and energy source delivered. Basically it will help you get around some of the rumen problems cows might encounter.
  • Be consistent with the amount if a supplement is needed make sure you probably include an ionophore which is helpful for acidosis and increase feed efficiency.
  • Do not finely grind the forage or grain. Long-stem hay and whole corn whole feed well in limit-fed diets. Having longer stems forage will slow down rate of passage and cows will be content longer.
  • Consider including an ionophore (example Rumensin, Bovatec) in the ration and that will likely mean that a pellet will need to be included in the ration.
  • If you have more than one pen available, consider sorting cows by age or weight so that "boss" cows eat more than their share and young, timid cows loss weight and condition.

Limit-fed diets are hard to balance for nutrients using low-quality forages and grains. Add a protein supplement that includes an ionophore if needed. When using grain by-products like distillers grains, 30% crude protein on a dry matter basis, a protein supplement is probably not needed. When using feeds that are high in protein and an additional supplement is not needed, it will be more of a challenge to get an ionophore into the diet

Cows being fed a limit-fed diet will act hungry and gaunt for the first week. The limit-fed diet is designed to meet their nutrient requirement without cows consuming all that they eat in a day. Usually after about a week to 10 days cows adapt to this feeding regiment. If it takes longer for them to adapt, put a bale of straw in the pen. Do not grind the feed ingredients, especially the hay, very fine. Longer stem hay in the complete ration delivered in the feed truck will slow down passage rate and cows will "feel" full for a longer period of time. Feed salt and mineral free choice. Cow-calf producers aren't used to including calcium in the diet. They are used to adding phosphorus in the diet. When feeding high grain diets or distillers grains, some calcium will need to be added to the diet. If the calves are with their dams, they will begin eating out of the bunks with their dams. If this happens, the amount of the ration fed needs to account for this. The calf will eat about 1% of its body weight on a dry matter basis.

Large Cow/Calf Operations

Limit-feeding cows "on location" may not be an option in large, expansive cow/calf operations. These operations may not have the equipment to feed complete diets. Supplementing cubes/cake or feeding expensive forages may be their only option. In these large operations, consider yearling enterprise, along with the cow/calf enterprise, as part of a drought management plan. If drought conditions warrant depopulation, move the yearling to the feedlot to "free up" pasture for the cow herd. If more pasture is needed, then implement depopulating or destocking strategies.

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