Herd Drought Management

Dry conditions put a squeeze on forage resources and can lead to some difficult herd decisions for managers.  To address this, producers need to either look at optimizing their forage resources, or reducing demand from the cow herd.  Often times a combination of both strategies is needed to get through lean times.

First let’s look at what we can do with the available forage resources.  Right now for a spring calving herd, we are at the lowest diet requirements we can have from the cow.  Without a calf to nurse or late gestation calf to grow, nutrient requirements are basically maintenance only.  At this point, we have the opportunity to put body condition on lean cows to get them through the winter, or if the herd is looking well, try not to overfeed and save some forage for later in the year.

If animals are looking good, this may be the time to utilize lower quality forages with little to no supplementation.  We can also do some dormant grazing on pastures that may be difficult to access once bad weather sets in.  Typically, we want to leave around half of a growing plant behind after grazing to help it recover and continue growth.  However, when plants are dormant and not actively growing, we don’t have to worry about this and can graze quite a bit closer than normal with little risk.

Corn stalks and other crop residues are a great bridge this time of year and can provide quality feed if utilized correctly.  Animals will select for the highest quality forage available; the grain, leaf, and husk.  As time goes by and the field is picked over, forage quality will drop.  To stretch this out, do some cross fencing and limit animals to a portion of the field at a time.  This will lower the initial grazing quality, but by reducing selectivity animals can stay in one location longer and overall quality is maintained at a higher level for the entirety of the grazing period.

If supplementation is needed in a diet, making a plan now can provide the time to compare different energy or protein feedstuffs and find the best price.  Utilizing a tool like the UNL Feed Cost CowQLator can provide a side by side analysis for different feeds on a per unit of protein or energy basis to ease the decision making process.

Lastly, we can look at our animals and start making decisions about who to keep and who to part ways with.  Keeping good records and going through them first to identify low producing animals can help take the initial emotion out of the culling process.

One class of animal that may be a good flex resource to keep around at least through the winter, are this year’s heifers.  These animals will have lower nutrient requirements than a mature cow, so we can keep more animals for the same feed demand.  Additionally, studies by UNL’s Dr. Travis Mulliniks have shown that some stress during development of replacement heifers can set the animal up to be more efficient over the course of its life.  Finally, if dry conditions persist into next year, these animals can be sold as yearlings without having to do deeper culling into the core herd.

Managing animals during drought is never fun or easy, but with planning and careful decision making, your herd can make it through to the greener pastures ahead.  Take stock of feed resources and develop a plan to match animal needs with what is available.  Consider dormant grazing or strip grazing crop residues to get the most out of forage resources.  Plan ahead for supplementation to get cost effective feeds.  When culling look at records to identify low producing animals, and consider using this year’s heifers as a flexible option to keep around.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: ben.beckman@unl.edu .