If your area is not currently in a drought, projections are that soon it will be. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, in late July about half of Missouri was either in moderate or severe drought conditions. Drought is a part of the normal cycle of livestock production. Management during these dry periods and decreased feed supplies needs to be part of the overall operational plan.
Drought conditions greatly reduce the available forage for livestock. Legume forages will tend to be high in quality, but cool-season grasses that were kicked into reproductive growth potentially will be low in quality. Grazing grass while it’s in the reproductive stage tends to be stressful on plants.
When forage is short, producers must make tough management decisions that may involve selling or relocating livestock. The remaining animals will likely need alternative feeding programs. When considering the options, keep your operation’s goals in mind: rebreeding cows while maintaining calving intervals, maintaining pounds of calf produced per cow, and minimizing feed cost per pound of calf sold.
These considerations are important when evaluating feeding options:
- Design a program to fully utilize available feeds
- Supplement low-quality feeds to correct nutrient deficiencies
- Analyze forages and feed to determine nutrient content
- Balance every ration with the animal’s requirements
- Reduce feed losses
An important part of this strategy is to allocate forages based on priority. For example, feed the highest-quality forage to animals that have higher nutritional requirements, such as growing calves or wet cows. Feed lower-quality forages to older, bigger cows in the middle to third stage of pregnancy. Save the better-quality feeds for periods before and after calving. To improve intake and digestibility of low-quality forages, grind it, ammoniate it, or feed it with a soluble sugar and protein supplement.
Spring forage is always high in protein and relatively high in energy because of the lower fiber content. Small grains, such as annual rye, triticale or oats can be used to fill the void of spring forage. In planning for next year, plant these varieties in August or September to provide even more forage the following spring. If the annual forage has been stressed by drought, wind, excessive soil nitrogen, shade, frost, herbicides, acid soils, low growing temperatures or nutrient deficiencies, be sure to have the forage tested for nitrates. High-nitrate forages are consumable if they are diluted with other feedstuffs and supplemented with energy. Keep the animal’s diet nitrate level below 2,500 parts per million for dairy cows and 4,400 for beef cows.
Weaning calves and placing them in a drylot with creep feed is very effective in reducing forage demand. MFA programs are well established for this practice, using products such as MFA Full Throttle, 14% Stockgrower, 16% Range Cubes, 20% Super Cattle Cubes, Cadence, Bucket Rattler Cubes, Cattle Charge or Forage Extender. Feeding half of the animals’ requirements as processed feed usually requires a feeding rate of 5 to 7 pounds per head per day, but cows can be maintained on as high as 80% Cattle Charge with tightly managed feeding.
If your forage supply is straw-based, feeding adequate protein is important, or there is a good chance the animals could become impacted. A feeding rate of 5 to 7 pounds of concentrate will help keep rumen fermentation going. The risk of impaction increases if water availability is limited.
Feeding protein supplements every other day for animals on stockpiled forage is effective and reduces labor. This practice is far less effective, however, when energy needs to be fed. Feed the 5 to 7 pounds of feed at least once a day. Splitting feedings into two is better.
Also keep in mind that cattle grazing short pastures are more likely to pick up undesirable things such as parasites, hardware and weeds. Pastures should be monitored and animals dewormed.
Visit with your MFA livestock specialists or agronomists for more strategies to manage effectively through drought conditions.
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