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West: Cost-effective management during drought

Ryan D. Rhoades for Progressive Cattleman Published on 16 August 2018

As fall begins, the drought monitor suggests much of the West is still dry, and conditions in some parts are worsening. With hay in short supply, concern for cost-effectively acquiring fall feed supplies has intensified.

Precipitation and forage conditions will likely require feeding to maintain cattle inventories. Feeding cows this early is expensive and has a major impact on profitability. It is typically not cost-effective to feed out of a drought situation (depends on feed costs, current and expected market prices, and duration of drought), but rebuilding the cow herd is also costly.

If maintaining the herd is a goal, producers should consider multiple strategies to reduce costs including supplements, cattle management and alternative feedstuffs. Here are a couple of considerations to help set us up for success.

1. Consider selecting the most cost-effective supplement: If continued grazing is still in play, and stretching the existing forage base is the objective, then identify a cost-effective supplement to use. Supplements come in many forms. Make a list of options that fit the system (i.e., availability, storage, equipment required, etc.). Do the math before purchasing feeds.

Evaluate those options based on a price per unit of nutrients (crude protein or total digestible nutrients), not cost per ton. High-protein supplements (greater than 30 percent crude protein) are usually more cost-effective and can be fed less frequently (two to three times per week). Limitations of each supplement must be considered (waste, consumption and labor).

2. Consider managing cattle differently: If pastures are extremely poor, and continued grazing is not an option, then consider limit feeding in a sacrificed pasture or drylot. Drylot feeding requires intensive management but can be more cost-effective than supplementation since small amounts of roughage are fed.

It also allows pastures to rest and recover from drought. When hay prices are high, grain is usually cheaper per unit of nutrient. Transition cows to high-concentrate diets gradually and ensure adequate bunk space.

3. Consider utilizing alternative feedstuffs: If forage for grazing is severely limited, and drylot feeding is not feasible, then consider utilizing crop residues (cornstalks, wheat straw, sorghum-sudan). Conduct a nutritional analysis and test for nitrates.

Nutrient content of crop residues is generally similar to low-quality forage (3 to 5 percent crude protein). Additional protein/energy supplement is needed. Byproducts (distillers grains, corn gluten, etc.) high in protein and energy are good supplemental feeds, if priced right. Exploring alternative feeding programs is the common link among each consideration. Drought requires cost-effective management. Reducing feed costs can help mitigate the impact of drought.  end mark

Ryan D. Rhoades
  • Ryan D. Rhoades

  • Assistant Professor
  • Beef Extension Specialist - Colorado State University
  • Email Ryan D. Rhoades