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Drought preparedness for cow-calf producers

Kimberly Williams Brackett for Progressive Cattle Published on 31 August 2020

In light of current weather patterns and drought in portions of Kansas and surrounding states, Kansas State University (KSU) hosted a webinar featuring tips for strategic reduction of grazing pressure, supplementation and early weaned calf nutrition and health considerations.

“As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail,” said Sandy Johnson, beef extension specialist. “This webinar is being conducted to help cow-calf producers evaluate the options they have to make strategic adjustments in response to reduced forage availability. We want producers to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities that may arise given current resources, markets and weather.”

With the shortage of pasture, knowledge of if and when a cow or heifer is pregnant is valuable, Johnson told listeners. That information can be used to identify early bred yearlings for replacements and late-bred or open females to remove from pasture in order to extend the grazing season.

Johnson outlined methods to reduce grazing pressure, such as fewer animals and days, reduced requirements, or a combination of the two. She said to weigh long-term range condition with short-term cash flow and expenses. Yearlings, old cows and bulls, failed convenience traits, or anything of least value, such as open and late-bred cows or unfit genetic goals, should be culled and sold, she said.

Sixty percent of pregnancies occur between 70 and 90 days into the breeding season. The best tool is ultrasound to stage pregnancies. “Embryos can be identified as early as 25 to 28 days of age,” Johnson said. “Think of the value of those early bred calves.”

She also suggested managing cows by stage and evaluating marketing options. “Whenever there’s a drought, it gives us an opportunity to clean up,” Johnson said. Take the opportunity to identify and cull cows with weaknesses. Early bred cows have greater value than later-bred, review seasonal changes in the cow market, and use timely pregnancy diagnosis to stage pregnancies.

Supplementation and early weaned calf nutrition

In a drought, Justin Waggoner, beef systems specialist, suggested producers replace forage with hay, fiber-based supplements or feed combination supplements that supply both energy and protein. We have more access to supplements today than in the past. Corn can be used as a supplement, however, Waggoner suggested producers account for protein content or look at byproducts.

Another consideration is feeding fiber versus starch. Fiber is preferred because there is less substitution and fewer negative effects of starch in the rumen. Feed up to 0.3% bodyweight, generally without negatively impacting forage intake of energy-based supplements. During a drought, the bottom line is meeting cows’ requirements for energy and protein. Waggoner said, “The goal is ultimately to meet those requirements.” Other considerations in supplementation are how to deliver both energy and protein daily, delivery methods (hand feeding, bunks, etc.) and social behaviors (bunk space should allow 20 inches per cow, sorting cows by condition, etc.).

Another option that was discussed was early weaning at less than 180 days of age. Conventional weaning is between 180 to 220 days of age, but early weaning may be implemented as early as 45 days of age. “Drought is a game of grazing days,” Waggoner said. Every four days a calf is not grazing equals one grazing day for the cow. Weaning 30 days early means one week of grazing for cows.

Newly weaned calves are often reluctant to eat, and subsequent dry matter intake (DMI) is low (1 to 1.5% bodyweight). Intake is really critical to the success of this program. Waggoner outlined a few tips and things to consider with newly weaned calves:

  • Expose calves to a bunk while they are still on the cow.
  • Nutrient density must be relatively high to offset low intakes.
  • Familiar feeds, such as grass hay, are not necessarily nutrient dense, and newly weaned calves may not readily consume novel feeds.
  • Limit inclusion of silage and wet byproducts.
  • Stressed cattle are more likely to consume concentrates.
  • Calves should be penned based on body size, limiting weight range within a pen to plus or minus 50 pounds.
  • Provide linear bunk space of at least 12 inches per calf.
  • Consider bunk and water tank height, pen maintenance (holes, dust, etc.), air flow and shade.
  • Too little shade promotes crowding.
  • Use panels to reduce pen size; they can easily be removed when cattle become acclimated.
  • Early weaned calves utilize concentrate feeds well, have similar treatment and pull rates with good management, and excellent feed gain.
  • In marketing early weaned calves, calf value is a function of weight gain post weaning.

A.J. Tarpoff, beef extension veterinarian, discussed early weaning calf health considerations and how to better prepare for the next stage of production. The earliest age recommended for weaning calves is 90 to 120 days. Stress such as weaning, changes in feed, extreme weather, castration, dehorning, transportation and mixing groups of cattle can hurt the immune system. Weaning is the most stressful time in the life of a bovine. “Manage to minimize,” Tarpoff said.

He said the goal should be to reduce compounding stressors. Calves need a functional immune system to get an adequate response to bovine respiratory disease. During weaning, a stressed animal’s immune system may not operate fully. “It does come down to planning,” Tarpoff said. He said to vaccinate against clostridial diseases (7- or 8-way), tetanus, 5-way MLV viral, and respiratory bacterins. Recommended vaccines and practices for calves at branding are clostridial, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), parainfluenza 3 (PI3), bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) type I and type II, which were highly recommended vaccinating against.

Weaning is the most stressful period in the life of beef cattle. Decrease the stress by handling cattle prior to weaning. A soft weaning can be used utilizing the fence-line method in a two-stage wean. Acclimate cattle to the new environment. “Timing is everything,” Tarpoff said. Castrate earlier in life before weaning to minimize the impact on calves. The castration method selected as the best option for calves at branding versus weaning is knife cut. Ninety-seven percent of veterinarians recommend that calves get a tetanus vaccine when banding is used as the castration method. Tarpoff also recommended parasite control of gastrointestinal nematodes, coccidiosis, and external parasites such as flies and ticks.

Returns were primarily due to added weight when sold. Tarpoff recommended selling a heavier calf. He said the biggest marketing mistake is selling animals without extra effort to ensure value is realized by the buyer.  end mark

The video presentation is available on KSU’s Animal Sciences and Industry page or via YouTube.

Kimberly Williams Brackett is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

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