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Management and production for drought conditions

Steve Blezinger for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 April 2019
Cattle laying next to stock pond

History tells us drought conditions come and go. This tells cattle producers three things: At some point in time they will have to deal with drought conditions, they will have to recover from these dry conditions and, finally, they should prepare for the next time drought occurs.

Since the first is a given, let’s take a look at the latter two items.

Recovering from drought conditions

Every cattleman is thankful when rain or significant snowfall begins after extended dry periods. The grass soon begins to grow, pastures will offer grazing, and the potential to harvest forages is renewed. How the recovery process occurs depends on how the ranch was managed during the drought.

One of the first jobs the cattleman has is an ongoing evaluation of pastures and hay fields. Since overgrazing is common after a drought, the focus must be on providing adequate opportunities for pastures to re-establish. Often, plant strength and overall plant population has been reduced – in some cases dramatically.

With rainfall, the existing plants will grow but, because of stress, possibly not as vigorously as during adequate moisture conditions. However, the new growth may outwardly give the appearance of substantial plant coverage in a given pasture or field.

Producers must resist the urge to assume that, with the new plant growth, things are back to normal and pastures are ready for full stocking. Most cow-calf producers don’t like seeing empty pastures and become eager to restock if they reduced their herd or if they have been holding cattle in restricted areas and continued to hay and feed. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Existing plants may have been weakened by the dry conditions and overgrazing and will be less tolerant of normal grazing pressures.

  2. Additionally, after a period of overgrazing, weed germination and growth may be substantial, so weed management is more important than ever.

  3. With improved moisture conditions comes an opportunity to apply fertilizers that may be utilized by the plant. Test your soil, and apply fertilizers per the results.

  4. Graze conservatively. If you have not used rotational grazing up to this time, temporary fencing (electric fences) is helpful.

  5. Monitor pastures closely. Every opportunity for re-establishment and regrowth must be provided.

  6. If existing ponds are still dry, consider some degree of cleanout and deepening so they may hold more water once they have refilled and the next drought occurs.

For the cattle themselves, certain considerations must be made:

• If the cattle were kept and fed, it is likely their body condition is less-than-optimal for rebreeding. Improving a female’s body condition score (BCS) normally increases her pregnancy rate.

  • Cattle going through drought experience significant stress. In addition to reduced body condition, mineral stores may have also been decreased. A sound mineral program is always necessary but especially in these conditions. Use of a quality, well-designed free-choice mineral is indicated to ensure mineral stores in the tissues are adequate.

  • This same level of stress may also have compromised the animal’s immune function. First, make sure all animals are on a proper plane of nutrition (protein, energy, minerals and vitamins). Second, make sure you have a well-designed herd health program in place, including vaccines targeted to local production conditions.

  • Cattle that have been on drought-affected pastures may have a higher-than-normal internal parasite load. Aggressive deworming should be employed to reduce internal parasite levels.

  • External parasites should also be addressed. Flies, grubs and lice all contribute to stress and reduced performance and need to be aggressively treated.

  • If the herd was destocked and replacement animals must be purchased, this may be a good opportunity to improve the genetic base.

Preparing for the next drought

If you happen to be in a region of the country no longer under drought conditions, you are fortunate. However, the likelihood of being affected by some degree of drought (short- or long-term) is always good. Below are some tips for preparing for the next drought:

1. Take steps to maximize forage productivity by improving fertility, reducing weed populations and establishing more productive and drought-tolerant plant species.

2. Increase opportunities to utilize rotational grazing. This may include the use of cross fencing, both permanent and temporary. This is a good time to develop a more intensive rotational grazing program.

3. If possible, take steps to provide a water supply to pastures that have historically only been served by conventional stock ponds, which can go dry during low-rainfall periods. A lot of water line can be laid for the same cost as hauling one load of water.

Lay water lines

4. Maximize the production of harvested or stored forages. If a rotational grazing program is employed, it may be possible to harvest forages from some pastures as part of the rotation process in an effort to keep plants in more vegetative and consistently growing stages.

5. Protect harvested forages adequately. If it is not possible to store hay (particularly round bales) in a barn, provide an area where bales can be stacked off soil or mud, and the stack can be covered by a tarp. This will assist in the longer-term preservation of hay quality. If using silage, use proper storage procedures including a well-designed bunker, application of a research-proven inoculant and adequate packing. Use of a preservative in hays is also a valuable practice for extending forage quality life.

6. Consider building a commodity storage facility or modifying an existing structure for replacement feeds and forages. The primary thing producers lose in a drought is adequate levels of roughage.

Maximize stored forages

7. Plan for drought conditions. This means researching and identifying multiple sources for hay, roughage, feed and commodities. If any of these commodities can be sourced at a lower cost during non-drought periods and effectively stored (protected from moisture, insects and rodents), it may be worth the investment. Become well acquainted with alternative roughage (gin trash, cornstalks) and feeding options. Dealing with drought conditions is always expensive. Evaluate what plans are most cost-effective for your particular operation.

8. Develop a drought management plan with multiple contingencies. This would include keep and feed, destock/restock, move to other pasture or move to feedlot. Each of these programs has an inherent cost. These costs should be evaluated as thoroughly as possible, and the plan should have forage production and animal components. Remember, everyone else in your area will probably be in the same situation and competing with you for resources.

9. Keep animals in as nutritionally sound condition as possible. This minimizes stress and prepares them for the stress inherent with drought. It also strengthens their immune system. Keep internal and external parasites controlled.

Conclusion

The best way to deal with drought conditions is to have a plan in place for when it occurs. These periods are always challenging to deal with and are typically expensive. The stress and cost of dealing with a drought can be minimized by having a plan in place and managing for the possibility before it ever happens.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Preparing for the next drought can consist of improving stock ponds.

PHOTO 2: Laying water lines.

PHOTO 3: Maximizing stored forages. Staff photos.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Email Steve Blezinger or call (903) 352-3475. Follow him on Facebook at Facebook Reveille Livestock Concepts.

Steve Blezinger
  • Steve Blezinger

  • Nutritional and Management Consultant
  • Reveille Livestock Concepts
  • Email Steve Blezinger

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