Feeding Strategies During Drought
Dr. Mark L. Wahlberg, Extension Animal Scientist
Cattle and sheep producers in some parts of Virginia are already experiencing feed shortages due to drought conditions. For those of you who are not in that shape, don't let your guard down. Two weeks of hot and dry weather can shift conditions very quickly. In this article I want to provide reminders for the strategies to consider when drought causes feed shortages.
Some nutritional ground rules have to be taken care of. Cows with calves have higher requirements for nutrition than do females that have been dried off. They also have a bigger appetite. High levels of nutrition are needed not only to support milk production, but also to enable the female to successfully re-breed. Cattle require a minimum of 1/2 % of their body weight in the form of effective fiber or long forage daily. So, high level of nutrition and supplementation should be continued through the end of the breeding season.
Consider the following options with cows prior to the end of breeding:
Feed hay to make up for the pasture that isn't there. OK if you have enough hay made. Calculate hay needs for a normal winter feeding season, and add 25% to that for such things as feed wastage and a harsh winter season. Don't waste hay – use the recommended methods such as hay feeders, unrolling, etc. Limit the time cows have access to hay each day. Four to 6 hours each day will probably give them enough feed, if the hay is of good quality.
Limit pasture or hay and supplement with grain. Nutritionally, one pound of grain replaces the energy in two pounds of hay. If a cow can eat the equivalent of 25 pounds of hay, and you limit her to 10 pounds of hay, the extra nutrition needed can come from around 7 pounds of grain. However, be aware that the cow will not be fed all she can eat, so she will be hungry with this feeding program. Good fences are needed, and she will gnaw on anything that she can find. But her nutritional needs will be met.
Buy hay if you don't have it. Bad idea. Energy is the needed nutrient. Grain is a cheaper source of energy than is hay. As long as the minimum amount of fiber is provided to the cattle (equivalent of 5 to 8 pounds of hay per head per day), the rest of the diet can be in the form of grain. So, if you're going to buy feed energy, buy grain and not hay.
Open all the gates so the cattle can wander over the whole place and find enough to eat. Another bad idea. This will just delay the regrowth once moisture falls. Concentrate the cattle in a smaller area and bring feed to them. Allow the balance of the property to grow grass that can be grazed later once there is enough of it.
Creep feed the calves to "lighten the load" on the cows. Nice idea, but it doesn't work that way. Calves prefer milk to anything else, so they will nurse to the point of removing all the milk the cow can make. Then they'll eat the creep feed. Calf forage intake is reduced, but not milk consumption. The calf grows well, but the cow is still pushed hard. The only way to really lighten the cows' load is to wean the calves.
Strategies to consider once the breeding season is over can be more dramatic. Remember, the critical nutrient needs occur from calving through breeding. So when the cows have had enough opportunity to get bred and you pull the bulls, level of feeding can go down.
The best thing to do to help the feed situation is to wean the calves. Calves that are 3-4 months old and weigh 300 pounds or more are able to make their living on their own. For the cow, once she is dry here appetite is less, and her nutrient requirements are substantially less. Once the calf is weaned it will be easier for the cow to hold her condition and not milk down to a very thin status. Limited forage plus grain can be used to maintain the cow fairly economically.
* Early weaning of calves requires that a high quality grain-based diet be fed to the calves. Palatable grain mixes of 14-16% protein, plus good quality mixed pasture or mixed hay should be offered. Little calves will not need a lot of pasture if they are fed grain in addition. Stocking rates of 4 to 6 calves per acre of pasture are reasonable. Feed efficiency of light calves on grain diets is very good. Their young digestive system can't hold a lot of feed, and they are at an efficient stage of growth. Rate of gain is good on a fairly low level of feed intake.
* Make certain you are feeding cows that are worth keeping. Carefully evaluate cows for soundness, freedom from disease conditions, reproductive performance, and other important criteria. Cull those that don't measure up.
Alternatives to pasture must be found when drought causes the grass to not grow. Substitute forage sources are not prevalent, and are usually expensive. In addition to hay, some possibilities are Cottonseed hulls, Peanut hulls, Broiler litter, but cost and availability are limitations.
Grain is a more cost-effective source of nutrition. Whole shelled corn and whole barley can be used interchangeably. In addition, soy hulls, corn gluten feed, wheat midds, and distillers grains have energy content similar to corn. Brewers grains is somewhat lower in energy, but may be useful if it can be purchased at a fairly low cost. **Caution** Some byproduct feeds are available in high moisture form. Do not be suckered into a low cost per ton for a high moisture feed. A feed with 25% dry matter that costs $35 per ton is actually $140 per ton of dry matter. Compare price on an equal moisture basis. Your local Extension Agent can provide assistance.
High grain with limited roughage will likely be the lowest cost feeding program for cows. When feeding this type of diet, though, the mineral program must be changed. Because of the high grain level, a mineral that has a lower Phosphorous and higher Calcium level needs to be used, similar to what would be fed to a steer in a feedlot.
Finally, some thoughts on forage management.
Don't graze too long on short grass – it will take even longer to recover.
Better to concentrate cattle in one area that is "sacrificed" and feed them there.
Let the grass grow back before grazing. Grazing short grass just means you will have short grass for even a longer time.
Nitrate toxicity is a concern with rapid forage growth following drought. Especially risky is a field that has been well-fertilized with nitrogen. All the more reason to wait a few weeks until grazing once growth resumes.
Alternate forages should be considered, especially the annuals. Millet and other summer annuals grow well in hot conditions, but they also require some water.
Lack of rain and hungry cattle are a bad combination. Many cattlemen have found the nutritional solution to this problem with grain feeding and limited hay. Early weaning of the calves further eases the feed shortage and enables calves to continue to grow.