Beef Cattle Management Strategies During a Drought

Wayne R. Wagner, Ph.D.
Livestock Specialist
WVU Extension Service
Phil Osborne
Animal Husbandry Specialist
WVU Extension Service

Periods of drought requires beef producers to make some adjustments in their production program or sell livestock. When cattle are sold out of desperation, the producer loses. If you have not begun to make contingency plans, start now.

You certainly want to avoid feeding hay before the winter season begins especially if you know your hay crop is going to be below normal. Even with early conservation, most producers will need additional feed for cattle. Is it possible to make it? The answer is yes, if you plan and make the necessary adjustments. Several small things can be done that collectively can conserve your feed resources.

1. Consider early weaning calves. The nutrient requirement of a dry cow is about 50% to 65% of that of a cow nursing a calf. A young calf on dry feed has an efficient feed conversion rate. It is more cost-effective if you wean and feed the calf and let the cow forage for her own needs. If this is done before the cow loses substantial condition and if we get some rain and forage growth this fall, the cow should be in reasonably good body condition at the time you might normally feed hay. If you take the cow into winter in poor shape, you will increase her nutrient requirements through the winter and probably hinder the herd's reproductive performance next spring.

Let's return to the weaned calf. You can achieve dry matter feed conversions of 5-8 pounds of dry matter per pound of calf gain. The best feed conversions are obtained when feeding a higher concentrate diet and achieving higher average daily gain (ADG). Calves can be weaned on a diet of no more than 2-4 pounds of roughage per day. The current outlook is for relatively cheap corn throughout the fall and winter. When feeding corn, however, you must be careful not to overfeed calves and create acidosis. Calves as young as 3 months can be successfully weaned and fed a dry diet. With very good management, you may be able to wean calves as young as 2 months.

If you are going to use the early weaning strategy, do not wait until the cowherd has lost substantial body condition and/or there is no forage remaining. Cows can live on mature grass, leaves, and some weeds, but they cannot live on bare ground.

2. Value the hay crop you do have and plan to get the most you can out of it. When you feed hay, do not waste it by providing cows with more than they can eat or utilize. For example, feeding hay on the ground results in excessive waste. Using hay rings usually results in substantial improvement. Although we do not have research data to support this claim, our experience suggests that using a "cone feeder" will result in the least hay loss. In addition, if you have a short hay crop, do not store round bales outside without any protection. You simply cannot afford the additional loss. Somehow, you need to cover the hay - under tarp, wrapped, or in a barn.

3. Consider sending replacement heifers to a feedlot for development so you can divert their feed/hay use to the cowherd. If you can find a feedlot that will grow your heifers at 1.5 to 1.8 pounds per day on silage, it should be cheaper than buying feed for them. Even after paying trucking and labor, you may not have any more cost in them than if you fed them at home.

4. Consider culling poor producers. The earlier you do it the better. Cull cow prices are likely to drop 10-15 cents between now and September. Old cows, late-calving cows, open cows, and worn-out bulls should be marketed as soon as possible. Cows should be checked for pregnancy this year. Schedule this with your veterinarian and do it as early as possible. For example, if you want to be done calving by April 1 and your veterinarian is comfortable diagnosing pregnancy as early as 40 days, you could pregnancy check as early as July 29 and ship any open or questionable cows at that time. There may be more open cows than usual because of the stress associated with drought. Do not keep marginal cattle at a time when feed resources are scarce because feed will be your major expense.

5. Consider feeding alternative feeds. Cattle can eat more than hay; in fact, they will do well on many other types of feed. On a cost per unit of energy basis, hay is usually the most expensive feed for cattle. For example, 1 pound of corn provides as much energy as 2 pounds of hay, but cows fed only corn will remain hungry. (Feeding only corn plus a protein supplement does have risks that include but are not limited to acidosis, mineral imbalances, and restless cattle.) By-product feeds to consider include; poultry litter, soybean hulls, wheat midds, cottonseed hulls, brewer's grains, and peanut hulls. Check with feed suppliers on availability and prices. Some producers are unwilling to use by-product feeds, but they may be the best alternative to get you through the year. In addition, you might want to include an ionophore such as Rumensin in your feeding program this year. Rumensin or Bovatec will improve gains of cattle fed a high-roughage diet and will improve feed conversion of cattle fed high-energy diets. However, be cautious about using rumensin when horses are around. Very small amounts of rumensin will kill a horse. Pool resources with neighbors! Purchasing feed and supplies in volume can reduce cost per unit.

6. If the opportunity exists, move cows to feed versus shipping feed to cows. If you are in a drought area, check other areas that may have an abundance of precipitation and forage.