Beef herd strategies for drought

Written by Dr. Jim White, MFA nutritionist on .

Given the drastic reduction in forage yield in a drought, we are left with a few management options to carry cattle forward. The most obvious is to buy hay. I won’t cover that here, because if it is an option in your area, and you can afford it, you have a clearer path. Unfortunately due to limited supply, buying hay isn’t always an option. That leaves you with two principal means of addressing forage shortages. You can reduce forage requirements. You can improve forage utilization.

Reduce forage requirements

Cull animals. The conventional wisdom is on culling during a drought is if the cull is inevitable, then don’t put it off. Delaying the sale of at least part of the cattle inventory further reduces forage supply and potentially exposes you to greater market risk if the drought persists.

Wean calves early.
Many dairy replacements are taken off milk or milk replacer at a month of age. We can wean that early in the beef herd. Weaning at two weeks of age is too young, but weaning at 60 to 90 days is certainly a viable solution. Weaning greatly reduces the cow's energy requirement. Removing the calf helps her keep body condition, which means she is more likely to get bred. It keeps good cows out of the cull pen.

Fill the feed lot.
If you have to put weight on calves on pasture, hold the highest quality pasture for the calves. A better option is to put calves in a yard and feed them. A calf that weighs under 400 pounds has a tough time gaining two pounds per day on just forage. And, putting the calves in a lot will further stretch forage for the cows. Calves can progress quickly in the lot. Small calves have excellent feed conversions. We routinely see 3.8:1 to 4:1 feed to weight conversions for calves fed MFA Cattle Charge or Full Throttle.

Feed concentrate. When forage is critically low, feed concentrate to replace missing total digestible nutrients/protein, and provide adequate vitamin and mineral fortification. Figure on six to seven pounds of forage extender cubes/pellets (46783 or 46831) to replace 10 pounds of hay. A limit-fed concentrate program means cows are always happy to see you. See the nutritional information on forage extender cubes and pellets below.

Forage Extender 14% drought cube/pellets

14% all natural protein Supplement dry range grasses,grass hay and other roughage for
stock cattle
A high energy, high soluble fiber,
modest starch formula
Cattle can substitute drought cubes for forage, reducing the
demands on forage inventories. A pound of Drought Cubes replaces
the energy and protein of 1.5-2.0 lbs of hay
Cubed Regulated, flexible feeding
Contains cellulase and yucca Cellulase has been associated with increased fiber digestion, yucca
has been associated with improved nitrogen retention, both are associated with improving the feed value of the short in supply forage
Fortified with minerals and vitamins Helps meet nutrient requirements for economical cow maintenance



Keep them healthy. Ensure that cattle are treated for parasites and files. Protect cattle from inclement weather. The goal is to reduce any stress or need for extra energy. In that sense, consider tactics of maintaining the BCS of cows. The winter months are the most expensive time to put body condition on cows. A cow isn’t going to gain weight just after she calves and most likely not until we get adequate spring grass. So we will spend less total calories keeping the cows in a BCS of > 5.0, and the heifers at > 5.5

Improve forage utilization

Boost bad hay. Treat low quality forages with oxides. Ammonia and calcium oxide both improve fiber digestibility/energy value, and the ammonia treatment raises the crude protein equivalent. Carefully note: there are handling issues when oxide treating forages. Be sure to know what you are doing before you start.

Feed earlier.
Start feeding hay and/or MFA supplements before pastures become too short. This will stretch pasture forages, reduce the incidence of overgrazing and insure that cows do not become thin before winter. Lower quality hay could be fed now and pastures grazed during late fall and early winter assuming we get some moisture to stimulate fall regrowth. As for fall growth, Iowa State University Climatologist Elwyn Taylor says that we are back to normal—but as you know, in MFA territory, a normal August is hot and dry. The National Drought Mitigation Center’s long term and short term drought models are available at the URL It seems counterintuitive when everything is crisp and brown, but consider a nitrogen/fertility application to allow for more forage being stockpiled for the winter. That’s a gamble on rain. But it will rain someday.  

Tweak grazing. Strip graze or rotationally graze pastures to improve utilization and harvest efficiency. Likewise feeding a TMR in a yard improves harvest efficiency.

Feed a balanced supplement.
Don’t over feed starch, protein, etc. Feed an ionophore (14% Stock Grower BT or a Super Beef supplement with Rumensin). The higher the energy of the feed, the bigger the response to using an ionophore. On a rough forage base the best rate of Rumensin might be 100 mg/head/day for brood cows. On an all-they-can-eat 200 bushel/acre corn silage buffet, 300 mg/head/day is a better target.

Dr. Jim White is ruminant nutritionist for MFA Incorporated.



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