Drought management for livestock producers


By Phil Rucker - Livestock Agent, Yadkin County Extension Agency



In many areas of Yadkin and Davie counties, the lack of rainfall has caused pastures to stop growing and the winter feed supply is being used up daily on many local farms. We are starting to see too many mouths and not enough hay. Even though the rain we have received in the last week or so has helped, it is still a long way from ending the drought.

Many livestock producers have been asking themselves questions on how to deal with the problem of too many animals and not enough forage. Here are a few options to consider as summer winds down. While most of this article is geared toward cattle, there are management tips that apply to horses, sheep, goats and other livestock.

Begin by developing a feed budget for the current herd. A feed budget is an estimate of the amount of feed that will be required to carry the animals through a feeding period of a certain length. Feed requirements depend on number of animals, their daily forage intake needs, their daily energy, protein and mineral needs, and the length of feeding period.

The second step is to assess current feed inventories, if any, and then to determine additional feed needs, including forages and supplementary feeds. Assess pasture conditions. Pastures should not be grazed closer than 2-3 inches. Producers should start feeding cows before pastures are overgrazed.

The third step is to identify what feeds are available and “run the numbers” to see which one is least costly. If producers still have grass, then rotational grazing will help stretch it. Producers should provide supplemental hay or feed to cows so they can graze longer on the limited forage that is available.

The fourth step is to see if reducing livestock numbers is less costly than procuring feed to maintain current numbers.

As we know cattle are cheaper than they were a few years back and hay is in short supply which could raise hay prices a little. Choices have to be made about selling low priced cattle to reduce the need for hay; purchasing hay to feed these low priced cattle, purchase supplements to stretch the hay supply and feed these low priced cattle, or seek other options to feed your herd. Here are a few management practices to consider.

1. If you have decided that culling animals and reducing the herd size is definitely in your future, don’t wait too late to start acting on that decision. If you haven’t come to that decision yet, you should probably hurry up. Everyone has at least a few animals that you could part company with and your herd would look better. Every day you feed that questionable cow is one less day you will have hay for another cow you want to keep. Plus reducing the stocking rate reduces the amount of grass damaged and improves forage recovery in the spring.

2. The first and best place to start culling is open cows (not pregnant). There is no use feeding precious hay to an animal that won’t produce a calf next year. Many small herd owners keep a bull in with the cows year round, but if you can find a place to put him tomorrow (another pasture, loan him to a neighbor, ….) you can call a vet to pregnancy test your herd. There are no free lunches. Look at getting rid of cows not holding up their end of the bargain.

3. Look for other obvious physical defects to help you rank cows for culling — old age, lameness, poor udders, missing teeth, low performers, poor keepers, bad disposition, etc. If the drought deepens and your hay resources are still not adequate you can cull a few animals all along to stretch the feed you have. Starting early is key and you will be glad you did.

4. Wean calves early or consider creep feeding them to reduce the stress and nutritional needs of your mamma cows.

5. Think of what options you have to grow forage this fall and winter. Practices like stockpiling tall fescue or planting small grain or ryegrass might be appropriate. Are there any cropland acres adjacent to your pastures that could be planted and used for winter grazing? Most textbooks say it is too late to plant small grain or ryegrass, but if there is enough moisture and some warm days, you can get enough grazing to justify planting soon.

6. Can you reduce hay and supplement cows with commodities? I have seen herds wintered on a half ration of hay and 5 pounds of a by-product feed each day. The workload is not pleasant, but the economics might surprise you.

7. If your pasture forages are gone, put animals in a sacrifice area and feed in one spot. It’s better to destroy one part of the farm than to ruin the grass on the whole place. The pasture acres that are rested and protected will respond quicker and pull you out of the situation faster once rainfall returns.

8. Finally, look for sources of hay and do some calculations to see what you can afford. Cattle prices are not as strong as they were two years ago so you need to decide how much you can afford to put into the herd. If you decide to buy hay, you don’t need much and it is available within a few hours’ drive, it could be a good option. It may only take some time searching online hay directories or making phone calls to locate the hay you need. The hay that’s not sold now won’t be any cheaper in December, January, or later so go ahead and start hunting now. And if you decide that the hay is too expensive, go back and read item number one above.

There is talk of shipping in hay but who knows how much, what the need will be or even if it will happen. The availability might not be enough to meet needs. I know of a few hay options locally, but they will run out soon. Looking at other options besides hay might be a good idea just in case you have to do something besides purchase hay. Be open to new ideas and management practices. You might find out some new ways work pretty well.

For more information on managing livestock during drought conditions or renovating pastures to improve forage performance, contact Phil Rucker at NC State Extension, Yadkin County Center at 336-679-2061 or [email protected]

By Phil Rucker

Livestock Agent, Yadkin County Extension Agency

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