Managing Cattle in a Drought

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Dry conditions and excessive temps have prevailed in Burke County and across the State this summer. Beef producers are looking for management techniques to cope with these conditions. The first step is to develop a plan and implement it before conditions become severe. There are a number of options to manage dry conditions. The best options will vary from producer to producer, but it is important to develop that plan.

One option is early wean the calves and start them on feed. Early weaning research indicates that calves can be weaned early, and placed directly on a high grain diet. Early weaned calves will gain well and rail superior quality grades when marketed. Weaning the calves early reduces the grazing pressure on the pastures by about 35%. Early weaning will help lessen pressure on pastures and should be done before conditions escalate and there is no grass to extend the grazing period. Early weaning also makes it possible to sell cull cows, further reducing grazing pressure. In these dry conditions it is a good time to get rid of unproductive cows because it is not profitable to waste resources on keeping these animals for another year under drought conditions Cows that raise small calves, are old, or are unsound should be considered for culling. Palpating cows about 45-60 days after the end of the breeding season and selling open cows will reduce late season grazing pressure by reducing the number of animals.

To maximize forage production under dry conditions, divide your pastures and rotationally graze. Even dividing the pastures into at least 3 or 4 paddocks (the more the better), will dramatically increase forage production under low moisture conditions. Once conditions are too dry, there will not be significant growth at that time, even with rotational grazing. Producers who were rotationally grazing this past spring under dry conditions had much more available forage than those who were continuously grazing. Avoid grazing the pastures extremely short (less than 2 inches) or you will weaken the plants and when it does rain they will not grow well. It is better to feed the cows rather than overgraze the pastures. Producers can choose a sacrifice pasture or paddock and feed cows to avoid overgrazing in drought conditions. By drylotting these cows, producers can reduce overgrazing and let existing forage stands wait for moisture. Once moisture levels increase, forages that have not been overgrazed will respond with higher growth than those weakened by overgrazing.

There are several options for feeding beef cows in these dry conditions. The first step should be to wean the calves, because it is much more economical to feed the calves than to feed the cows to produce milk for the calves. You can limit feed corn, or byproducts, such as corn gluten feed, or brewer’s grains. This is a low cost alternative because a dry cow can be maintained on as little as 10 lbs. of corn and corn gluten feed (1/2 and 1/2). You can limit feed high quality hay at about 15-20 lbs. per day per head. You can easily limit feed hay, by limiting the amount of time the cows have access to the round bale feeder. Place hay feeders in a lot or barn and give them access for predetermined amounts of time. With high quality hay (58-62% TDN) about 3 hour of feeding is sufficient to get the desired level of intake. With good quality hay (54-57% TDN) about 6 hours of feeding is sufficient to get sufficient intake for maintenance. With poor quality hay (less than 53% TDN) the cows should have continuous access to the hay. When cows are losing weight, increase the feeding time, and if they are getting fat you can decrease the time. Corn silage is another viable alternative under drought conditions. Often in dry years, there is drought-damaged corn present on a producer’s farm or neighbor’s farm that will not have much value for grain production. This corn will produce silage that is equal in feeding value to silage from corn with a normal amount of grain. Ensiling will reduce nitrate levels by about 50%, which reduces the chance of nitrate poisoning.

It is evident that there are many different ways to feed beef cows. Most importantly, develop a feeding plan to use during these drought conditions. By enlisting some of these procedures, you can minimize the impact of dry conditions and position yourself for the months ahead.

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Photo of Damon Pollard, N.C. Cooperative ExtensionDamon PollardExtension Agent, Agriculture - Livestock, Field Crops and Forestry (828) 439-4460 damon_pollard@ncsu.eduBurke County, North Carolina
Posted on Aug 13, 2015
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