Managing cow herds during drought

Thursday, June 28, 2012

McCOOK, Nebraska -- Anytime drought occurs, times are difficult for livestock producers. However, having a drought management plan will help alleviate some of the stress of decision making when the drought actually occurs. This plan will help producers avoid management practices that would lead to "panic", mass selling of livestock. It is too late for a plan this year, but should be considered in the future. This article will provide cattle producers with a few strategies to help manage their herds if the dry pattern we are in should continue.

The initial management strategy would be to wean the calves early and put them in a drylot and feed for normal growth. More information can be found in NebGuide G2047 "Management of Early Weaned Calves." The dry cows could then be maintained by grazing poor quality pastures or fed low quality feeds until crop residues are available. In early gestation, dry cows can be maintained on low quality feeds without long-range effects on reproductive performance. For each 2.5 days that the calf is weaned there is 1 extra day of forage available for grazing.

If the drought continues, large volumes of culling will likely take place and cow prices will undoubtedly decline. If adequate sources of feed are available, UNL Beef specialists advise not to cull until after pregnancy, but recommend pregnancy checking as soon after the breeding season as possible. Remember when culling, that unbred heifers will not be producing a salable product in the next year, so any feed used for them this summer and fall will not help generate any income.

If producers are to cull cows, the following criteria is recommended: 1. cows with physical impairments, 2. non-pregnant if bred long enough to detect pregnancy accurately, 3. old, mature cows, and 4. cows with low production records.

When and if summer pastures are used up, cow and calf prices are low, and creep feeding or early weaning the calves is too expensive to consider, a management alternative may be feeding cows supplemental forage, or a forage, distillers grain combination while on pasture. Forage possibilities would be ammoniated wheat straw, small grain hays such as oat or wheat hay (be aware of nitrates), or prairie hay left over from last year. Distiller grains are usually less expensive in the summer, so this may be an economical option if you're close to an ethanol plant. In this feeding scheme, the calves would remain on the cows and it is assumed that the breeding season is over. Crop residue combined with byproducts may be an option for cows grazing pasture or fed in a dry lot. For more information, please see NebGuide G2077: Crop Residue or Low Quality Hay Combined with Byproducts as a Forage Substitute.

Even if it rains, pastures probably will not return to maximum carrying capacity. Fall pastures are possible only if moisture is present to germinate the seed. Possible fall pasture alternatives include planting of winter wheat, rye, forage sorghum, sudan grass, and other small grain grasses. For more information, please see NebGuide 2036: Feed value of Alternative Crops for Beef Cattle. Nitrates can be a concern for summer annuals grown in drought conditions. Normally, forages that are ensiled lose 40 to 60 percent of the existing nitrate. However, if producers are concerned that the ensiled feed contains high levels of nitrates, we would recommend that a test be taken to determine the exact level of nitrates. For more information, please see NebGuide G1779: Nitrates in Livestock Feeding.

For more information on drought management for livestock producers, please visit the website and select 'Drought' along the navigation bar on the left side of the page, or contact your local UNL Extension office. In Red Willow County, contact Brian Strauch at 345-3390 or Credit is given to Dr. Rick Rasby for contributing to this article.

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