Managing Cattle In A Drought

Many forecasts have predicted dry conditions for many countries this summer. Dan Faulkner from the University of Illinois Extension gives beef producers some management techniques to cope with these conditions.
calendar icon 19 July 2010
clock icon 4 minute read
University of Illinois

The first priority is to develop a plan and implement that plan before conditions become severe. There are a number of options to manage dry conditions. The best options will vary from farm to farm, but it is important to develop a plan.

One option is to wean the calves early and place them on feed. Our early weaning research indicates that calves can be weaned early and placed directly on a high grain finishing diet.

These calves will be very efficient and will have superior quality grades when marketed. Weaning the calves will reduce the grazing pressure on the pastures by about 35 per cent. This will help to cope with dry conditions and should be done before conditions become severe and there is no grass to extend the grazing period. Early weaning also allows you to sell cull cows in late spring (on a better market than in the fall), which will reduce grazing pressure.

When we have dry conditions it is a good time to get rid of unproductive cows because it is unprofitable to spend the money to keep the cows for another year under drought conditions. Those cows that raise small calves, are old, or are unsound are good candidates for culling. Palpating your cows about 45 days after the end of the breeding season and selling open cows can also reduce late season grazing pressure by reducing the number of cows.

To maximise forage production under dry conditions, divide your pastures and rotationally graze. Even dividing the pastures into at least three or four paddocks (eight is better) will dramatically increase forage production under dry conditions.

Don’t wait until conditions are dry to divide the pastures because there will not be significant growth at that time even with rotational grazing. Producers who were rotationally grazing this past summer under dry conditions had much more available forage than their neighbors who were continuously grazing did. Don’t graze the pastures extremely short (less than two 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.

There are a number of options for feeding beef cows if we have dry conditions. The first step is 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 (this was discussed in detail in Illinois Beef last summer). 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.

It is possible to limit feed hay by limiting the amount of time the cows have access to the round bale feeder. With high quality hay (58-62 per cent TDN) about three hour of feeding is sufficient to get the desired level of intake. With good quality hay (54-57 per cent TDN) about six hours of feeding is sufficient to get sufficient intake for maintenance. With poor quality hay (less than 53 per cent TDN) the cows will need to have continuous access to the hay. If cows are losing weight you can increase the feeding time and if they are getting fat you can decrease the time. Corn silage is another attractive alternative under drought conditions.

Often there is standing corn available on a producer farm or neighbours farms that will not have much grain production. This corn will produce silage that is comparable in feeding value to silage from corn with a normal amount of grain. The ensiling process will reduce nitrate levels by about 50 per cent, which reduces the chance of nitrate poisoning. Obviously there are many different ways to feed beef cows. It is important to develop a feeding plan to use if we experience drought conditions.

It is time to start preparing for dry conditions. By following some of the outlines procedures, you can minimise the impact of dry conditions and position yourself for the upcoming year.

July 2010

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