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Decision tips for cattle producers during drought

Jill Peine for Progressive Cattle Published on 23 April 2021
Cow calf pair

The U.S. Drought Monitor map continues to feature a lot of undesirable colors. Widespread drought conditions continue across many parts of the U.S., and experts are predicting these conditions are not going away any time soon.

The weather pattern and outlook we are experiencing is illustrating strong indicators that this dry period may be prolonged into the next year. Whether you were prepared for these dry conditions or not, there are still several options producers can look toward to help them survive the drought. These may include strategies to stretch your forages, weaning calves off early or selling lower-performing cows.

1. Stretch available forages

Forages are the most valuable resource for cow-calf operations. When pastures dry up, there is often a lot of uncertainty, and increased management is needed to make up for deficiency in both forage quality and quantity. Providing a self-fed protein supplement during these conditions can help.

While forages during dry periods may contain less crude protein and more fibrous material, a protein supplement will improve the digestibility of low-quality forages and increase the amount of critical energy cows can extract from the forage. With a blend of rumen-degradable protein and bypass protein, rumen microbial fermentation is maximized so the animal can digest low-quality forages more efficiently. This will help improve the protein status of the cow.

In addition to protein, these forages may also be lacking in minerals and vitamins. It is especially important to be sure cattle are consuming sufficient amounts of phosphorus, as well as vitamin A, which can also be deficient in forages harvested before or after a drought.

Beef cow nutrient requirements are at an all-time high leading up to calving during the third trimester of gestation and during lactation. As these dry conditions persist, they will impact critical time periods for both spring- and fall-calving herds; therefore, supplementation may be necessary to make up for nutrient deficiency. Drought-stricken forages alone won’t meet their high requirements from a protein and energy standpoint, nor will they provide critical minerals and vitamins. Not meeting the needs of pregnant and early lactating cows negatively impacts not only milk production but breed-back rates as well and can have a lifelong impact on the calf pre- and post-calving.

Self-fed supplements can also be used as a grazing tool. Positioning low-moisture blocks in strategic locations will attract cattle to areas that may be underutilized and will help draw them away from loafing areas or water sources, for example, spreading out cows on the pasture. During a drought, low-moisture protein supplement placement can help to strategically move cattle farther from water that may be harder to find, or that may dry up, in some pastures under dry conditions. This can help improve grazing distribution and reduce overgrazing on already-stressed forages.

2. Wean calves early

There is a wealth of information available covering early weaning. Although I won’t specifically cover those advantages or disadvantages in much depth here, I will mention that weaning calves early may be a beneficial option in drought conditions.

Drying cows off earlier than normal will help in lowering the requirements of lactating cows and will also help extend days on a pasture. While weaning calves early and selling at a younger age and at a lighter weight may not be as profitable as the alternative, it may help you save on winter feed costs for the cow herd. Weaning early will also help maintain the cow’s body condition compared to keeping calves on for a longer period of time. This may reduce the additional feed costs associated with gaining back body condition, which may be necessary for cows dried off later in the year.

When pastures are short on grass, cows will first take care of themselves and may give up on making milk available to the calf, resulting in the calf coming up short. While weaning calves early is a valuable option in these situations, these calves are most likely nutrient- and immune-deficient as a result. Putting self-fed protein blocks out for calves leading up to weaning and in weaning pens will be beneficial. The palatable molasses taste will attract calves while also restoring nutrients to help revive potentially depleted calves. Additionally, the licking action itself has many benefits and can help get calves on feed more quickly.

3. Cull or sell lower-performing cows

Despite providing the right supplement or utilizing proper management practices, liquidation of the cow herd may be unavoidable. In dry years, do pregnancy checks early and cull open cows first, followed by later-calving, lower-performing cows. While later-calving cows may be less valuable for your operation, they may be a suitable fit somewhere else. Heavily culling quality breeding animals should be a last resort unless you are scaling back the operation. With every challenge comes an opportunity; use these culling decisions as an opportunity to retain your best cows. Once forages are back to normal, your herd can then be rebuilt on the stronger genetics and higher-performing cattle you desire.

Keep in mind, most self-fed supplements are intended to be offered in addition to available forages. When pastures are severely dry and depleted of forage, to meet the intake requirements of the cow, additional feeding will be necessary to prevent negative cow performance.

When forages are available, make the smart decision and provide a protein supplement during dry conditions to help achieve better results. Dry conditions can negatively impact the performance of your herd today and for generations to come. Stay in front of these challenges by supplementing your cow herd with the additional protein, minerals and vitamins they need. end mark

PHOTO: Drought-stricken forages alone won’t meet the protein or energy needs of a pregnant or lactating cow. Photo by Paul Marchant.

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