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Making smart decisions in dry conditions: Tips for cattle producers during drought

If you are in the western half of the United States, the northeast or, really, in many of the areas in between, it probably comes as no surprise to you that the U.S. drought monitor map currently features a lot of undesirable colors. Whether you were prepared for these dry conditions or not, there are still several options that producers can look toward to help them survive the drought. These may include stretching your forages, weaning calves off early or selling the lower-performing cows in the herd.

  1. Stretch available forages

    Forages are the most valuable resource for cow-calf operations. When pastures dry up, there is often a lot of uncertainty, and increased management is needed to make up for the deficiency in both forage quality and quantity. Providing a self-fed protein supplement during these conditions can help. While forages during dry periods may contain less crude protein and more fibrous material, a protein supplement will improve the digestibility of low-quality forages and increase the amount of critical energy cows can extract from the forage. With a blend of rumen-degradable protein and bypass protein, rumen microbial fermentation is maximized so the animal can digest low-quality forages more efficiently. This will help improve the protein status of the cow. In addition to protein, these forages may also be lacking in minerals and vitamins. It is especially important to be sure that cattle are consuming sufficient amounts of phosphorus, as well as vitamin A, which can also be deficient in forages harvested before or after a drought.

    Supplementation is also critical for fall-calving cows at this time of year, as they are in their third trimester or are approaching calving, and through lactation. Drought-stricken forages alone won’t meet their high requirements from a protein and energy standpoint, nor will it provide critical minerals and vitamins. Not meeting the needs of the pregnant and early lactating cow negatively impacts not only milk production but breed-back rates and can have a lifelong impact on the calf pre- and post-calving.
    RELATED ARTICLE: Late summer forage challenges
    Self-fed supplements can also be used as a grazing tool. Positioning low-moisture blocks in strategic locations will attract cattle to areas that may be underutilized and will help draw them away from loafing areas or water sources, for example, spreading out the cows on the pasture. During a drought, barrel placement can help to strategically move cattle farther from water that may be harder to find, or that may dry up, in some pastures under dry conditions. This can help improve grazing distribution and reduce overgrazing on the already-stressed forages.

  2. Wean calves early

    Previous blogs have specifically covered early weaning, so I won’t cover the advantages or disadvantages of it in much depth. However, I will mention that weaning calves early may be beneficial in drought conditions. Drying cows off earlier than normal will help in lowering the requirements of the lactating cow and will also help extend the days on a pasture. While weaning calves early and selling at a younger age and at a lighter weight may not be as profitable as the alternative, it may help you save on winter feed costs for the cow herd. Weaning early will also help maintain the cow’s body condition compared to keeping calves on for a longer period of time. This may reduce the additional feed costs associated with gaining back body condition, which may have been necessary for cows dried off later in the year.

    When pastures are short on grass, cows will first take care of themselves and may give up on making milk available to the calf, resulting in the calf coming up short. While weaning calves early is a valuable option in these situations, these calves are most likely nutrient- and immune-deficient as a result. Putting barrels out for calves leading up to weaning and in weaning pens will be beneficial. The palatable molasses taste will attract calves while also restoring nutrients to help revive potentially depleted calves. Additionally, the licking action itself has many benefits and can help get calves on feed more quickly.

  3. Cull or sell lower-performing cows

    Despite providing the right supplement or utilizing proper management practices, liquidation of the cow herd may be unavoidable. In dry years, do pregnancy checks early and cull the open cows first, followed by the later-calving, lower-performing cows. While the later-calving cows may be less valuable for your operation, they may be a suitable fit somewhere else. Heavily culling quality breeding animals should be a last resort unless you are scaling back the operation. With every challenge comes an opportunity; use these culling decisions as an opportunity to retain your best cows. Once forages are back to normal, your herd can then be rebuilt on the stronger genetics and higher-performing cattle you desire.

Keep in mind, CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements are intended to supplement available forages. When pastures are severely dry and depleted of forage to meet the intake requirements of the cow, additional feeding will be necessary to prevent negative cow performance. When forages are available, make the smart decision and provide a CRYSTALYX protein supplement during the dry conditions to help achieve better results. Contact your local CRYSTALYX dealer to select the product that will fit your needs.