It has happened again. We are moving into serious drought conditions here for the second year in a row. Corn has dried up early, and even the soybean fields are showing signs of giving up with large areas of wilt and dead leaves dropping. Last year the rains stopped in February, but an additional kick of 5 inches in July helped beans and forage. This year early rains delayed planting until late May, but that is where the precipitation ended. The experts call our current condition a “flash drought”. High temps, a lack of cloud cover, and low humidity takes a toll on vegetation. This includes livestock forage. Options for plant life are irrigation or death in these circumstances. Cattle face direct health issues when droughts occur. Handling drought conditions is paramount to cattle health, and a beef farmer’s bottom line.
In this age of large scale farming, there were a few issues that came to my attention last year. Cattle growers were pushing pastures to the limit, while relying on distiller’s grain and other feedstuffs to take the place of good forage. Operators calculated feed, gains, losses… and then ran out of water. I was literally surprised by the number of larger cattle operations who had rented more ground year after year, yet failed to consider what would happen if the cattle had nothing to drink. Granted, it is rarely a problem in my location, but hydration is a pretty important issue to ignore. Even if your breeding program falls apart, there are 3 important issues when raising cattle: Fencing to keep them in, forage, and water. Even spring fed creeks are turning into dusty ditches this year. We have once again fallen back on stock tanks placed behind larger ponds to ensure the cattle stay hydrated.
Forage is a less dramatic, yet almost as important issue. Depending on what is available in your area, cattle can be fed distiller by-products, soybean or peanut hulls, grains, and even citrus rinds. The important thing to remember is cattle require roughage. A pound of corn will replace 3 pounds of alfalfa hay as far as nutrition goes, but the threat of acidosis increases. Grain should never replace more than around 10 percent of a cow’s diet. If you have plenty of hay… feed it. Cattle are built to handle many types of feed, but there is little that will replace good quality hay as a majority of a bovine’s diet. In a drought situation hay can become scarce. It is a good idea to conserve as much as possible.
Hay volume can be lost quickly due to poor storage and improper feeding. Net wrapped bales conserve hay compared to string tied, but there are few options that save hay as much as storing it in a shed, or covering the bales with tarps or plastic. The tighter the bale, the less oxidation and moisture can permeate the stored forage. Crunch some numbers. Bale rings become a must, but those high dollar, hay saver types may be worth the extra bucks during a shortage. Monitor hay consumption for a couple of weeks. Calculate the amount of hay you would need to survive the winter. If you are feeding hay early, and there is a possibility of running out before spring pastures rejuvenate, it is time to consider serious action.
Fill up the creep feeders. Supplying calves with extra nutrition removes stress from the cows. Wean calves early. With the right balance of feed and care, calves can be weaned as early as 3 months. The cost may seem high, but calves convert feed almost twice as efficiently as older cows. Cull heavily. An unproductive cow is costly. Older cows that don’t reproduce need to go. Move cattle off-site. Replacement heifers can be housed at feedlots that have feed available. As long as they are restricted to silage, and gain is limited, it is a viable option. When all else fails, it is time to send some cattle off to market. There is always sentimentality when it comes to animals. It is better to sell cattle to ranchers who have feed and water than to watch cattle lose weight and have to sell later. The better condition a cow is in the more she will bring at the sale barn. Cattle production is a business. Selling a slaughter cow for $.75 a pound while she weighs 1100 pounds is a much better decision than getting $.50 after she has stressed down to 900.
Once you have your herd down to manageable size, you can consider options to improve your odds in the spring. Re-seeding, fertilizing, and rotational issues can be decided during the fall and winter months. Droughts stress both livestock, and the grower. With a plan you can reduce anxieties, and focus on the future.