Strategies for cow-calf producers in drought conditions

Aug 26, 2021

Jon Albro talks about the current drought conditions that many cow-calf producers are experiencing across the U.S. and Canada and gives his advice on strategies when dealing with limited and low-quality forages.

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Tom:    We're here today with Jon Albro, Regional Sales Manager with CRYSTALYX® Brand Supplements, to talk about the current drought conditions that many cow-calf producers are experiencing across the U.S. and Canada. Welcome back, Jon.

Jon:      Thank you, Tom. Good to be back.

Tom:    So, what are the most immediate considerations for producers who are dealing with this drought?

Jon:      Well, thanks, Tom. Yeah. Drought’s never a fun topic to discuss. However, it is a part of life — it really is if you’re in the production agriculture business. There (are) dry years. There (are) wet years. And I think some areas in the United States are maybe more prone to have droughts than others, and that seems like what we’re seeing in the western U.S. And you're right: a lot of the U.S. and Canada is experiencing it right now. I'd say a good third of the western United States, at least a good third, is under pretty exceptional drought conditions, looking at the latest drought monitor map, and the Northern Plains and Northern Rockies, as well as anything west of the Rockies.

            So, it’s here. And we deal with these kinds of conditions somewhere, it seems like, every year. And I think, for cow-calf producers — I’ll go through maybe two or three concerns here, and I'll try to be somewhat brief — but I think the most important considerations or factors to really evaluate, first of all, is your forage inventory and the quality of that forage as well. So, we might need to look at small alternatives as well. There’s, maybe, some other types of feedstuff that we (should) consider.

            But normally, in a drought, what can be limiting simply is feed or feed quality. And if you don't have forage volume, then you need to consider if purchasing feed is feasible, or are there other possible sources of feed that will be available at some point, such as some crop residues? Or perhaps — like, in the state I live in, and states in the Northern Plains or anywhere where we grow corn, sometimes the corn crop might not look like it's going to be very good for grain, and maybe that could be salvaged for some silage and used as cattle feed there. (There are) also other crop residues, like straw, etc.

            And so, if there’s not a feasible option, then producers may need to consider even reducing numbers — and that’s cattle numbers. And that’s another topic, really, but I’m not going to get into too deep (into that) today. But for the sake of this conversation, I'll stay on the topic of forages, and that — the forage quality — is one of the most important things to consider, after quantity, obviously. And normal drought-stricken forages are going to be low in nutrients such as protein, phosphorus (and) vitamins. And we worry about energy, too, especially if some of that forage is limited in the amount (of it). So, other nutrients might vary as well, but CRYSTALYX, that's really what we do. We are pretty experienced in helping producers maximize this type of low-quality forage. These nutrients are really what CRYSTALYX provides in a variety of formulations that fit really high-quality forages, as well as low-quality forages, too.

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RELATED BLOG: How can CRYSTALYX help cow-calf producers in a drought?
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            So, you know, I think, from the cow standpoint, something to really be cognizant of in a drought — it's always important, but in a drought, we keep a (few) more eyes on it — and that is body condition score. And even in a drought, we have to have cattle breed back, and body condition score is key. Really, I think the cattle that are in good condition will start the grazing season early on, such as systems that have spring calving. If they're well-cared-for during early lactation and through calving and going into the grazing season in the summer, they’ll have better luck at rebreeding, and that’s true even under dry conditions.

            So, early weaning calves is another practice that you can do to help improve body condition. And there's a lot of information out there right now, in some different blogs and different publications, talking about early weaning of calves. And it's not a new topic; it’s been done before, and a lot of information is out there on it. And it can be done pretty effectively under the right kind of management. Again, for this discussion, I'd kind of like to say what it does for the cow, and it really reduces her nutritional need by about a third. If you take that calf away from her a little earlier than normal — maybe a couple of months earlier than you normally would — that reduces her nutritional needs by about a third. So, that’s a third less nutrition the cow needs to maintain body condition, and (that) could be the difference in how much you might have to reduce (your) stocking rate — or at least maintain your normal rate — or how much you might have to reduce it, just in general.

            So, early weaning might also be the best thing for the calf as well, as once they’re weaned up, they’ll oftentimes be on a better point of nutrition. And it also gives us some more flexibility in what we do with the normal management of the cow. Not only is she going to have lower nutrient requirements, (but) we would also have the opportunity to pregnancy check her earlier and cull some of those open or non-bred cows earlier than normal. And really, that's a good thing if you're trying to conserve forage, because there's no use in keeping her around any longer than you need.

            The last thing — and it's certainly not the least; there's a lot of topics here that are good considerations — and that would be water quality. It's oftentimes a concern in drought, especially if the main source of that water is surface water that's collected in stock dams, ponds or dugouts or other types of water structures that would collect surface water. In a drought, this type of water can sometimes become stagnant. It can be concentrated, just because there's lower volumes and no stock ponds. And it can have some toxic compounds in there, be it from sulfates, be it from algae blooms, etc. And cattle often will wade in these ponds in the heat of the day, and that only makes a bad condition worse, because they might concentrate it even more with manure, with urine and bacteria. And it just makes a bad situation worse.

            So, having other water sources — (even) if that's a luxury — should be considered, and possibly trying to limit the water intake from those low-quality sources, again, if good water is available somehow, somewhere. And I’ll talk about it more later, but the water quality can really impact the mineral status of the animal as well. So, we don't want to forget a well-balanced mineral program in a drought as well.

Tom:    Well, you’ve touched on a number of them here, but let's expand a bit on some common strategies that cow-calf producers might implement in a drought situation.

Jon:      Yeah. Really, about the main thing, I think — there's several strategies, and they all do revolve around how to improve forage utilization or how to take care of our forage utilization the most. I talked about quality and I talked about quantity earlier on here. You know, the valuation of forage sources and the quality really will determine what type of supplement strategy to apply. If we're trying to substitute forage with a supplement, then we oftentimes will look at handfed supplements, like range cake or cubes, or even free-choice small blocks that would provide a higher nutrient payload. And sometimes, that nutrient payload is in the form of just supplementing additional energy as well as protein.

            And we have a new product that’s unique — and not relatively as new now, but we’ve had it for three or four years — and that’s CrystalBlox™. And that’s a supplement that combines the low-cost component of compressed blocks made from, primarily, dried distillers grains and some other feedstuff ingredients along with some CRYSTALYX in that product form. And that will help the overall consistency of the intake. But the thing about CrystalBlox — or some of these other supplements that are fed at a little higher volume — is that you do get a higher nutrient payload, and it might not replace your forage dry matter in a 1:1 ratio, but the fact that they’re nutrient-dense can really help maintain performance. So, that might be considered if we’re limited in forage volume.

            If we do have some forage that’s stockpiled that’s just been low-quality, then it’s not really any different than any other strategy, and supplementing low-quality forages with a protein supplement.

Tom:    What does the term or saying “stretch your forage” really mean, and how does supplementation stretch forages?

Jon:      Well, that term, “stretching your forage,” it gets used kind of loosely, in my opinion, but it is a common vernacular that we use. It really does apply, to whether it be low-quality or high-quality forages, sometimes, whether you’re in a drought or not. In my opinion, Tom, it’s really about improving forage utilization and/or the fiber digestibility.

            Again, we’ve done a lot of research in this area dating back into the 1990s. One of our classic studies was at Kansas State University, (and) that really substantiated what a lot of ruminant nutrition already knew about what happens when you supplement a protein supplement on low-quality forage: You improve the digestibility of that forage, the fiber digestibility. You increase the overall intake. And we did the same type of study using CRYSTALYX, and we saw very much the same response of what other studies with other protein supplements would have shown in previous years. And we saw about a 10% better improvement in the digestibility and an even higher increase in forage intake. And this really is the classic response, like I mentioned, to supplementing low-quality forage with protein. And if faced with a drought, we really do want better forage digestibility that allows more of that energy to be utilized from a pound of grass, per se.

            But if we're limiting ourselves on the amount of forage that’s out there, we may not want cattle to eat more if, simply, there isn’t anything there to eat. Now, maybe there's some research out there that has been done on how much forage cattle would eat if it was in a limited supply — how much more they would go after that limited supply, be it in grazing or what have you — but the benefit of cattle performing better on that low-quality forage is really what we're after. And we can still do this with CRYSTALYX. And if we want to substitute forage, then we would look at some different strategies, like I mentioned before, about maybe some other type of supplement forms.

Tom:    Well, where does CRYSTALYX fit into managing drought?

Jon:      Yeah. What I was just saying about forage utilization really leads us into that question, Tom. Managing and better utilizing forages — (which is) really the job description at CRYSTALYX — and some aspects of varying supplement strategies might be more appreciated in a drought, and that's probably the case for using CRYSTALYX as a grazing management tool. And so, I think one of the best bits in a drought situation — especially in a grazing situation — is that grazing management tool, or grazing distribution. And we’ve discussed this topic an awful lot in the past on different blogs, different podcasts. And this research is stuff that we've done going back over two and a half decades now, back into the late 1990s. And grazing management and grazing distribution really is forage management, like I mentioned, and forage utilization.

            A lot of this research that we did, what we found (is that) — or I guess it would be in most situations, in most pastures — there's likely areas of any pasture, regardless of size, that receive less grazing pressure than other areas. And it could be due to forage quality; it could be due to difficult terrain or distance to water or whatever might keep the cattle from going into those areas that, sometimes, we refer to as underutilized areas — just parts of the pasture that cattle don't necessarily go to.

            You know, good grazing management will encourage more even grazing distribution, but we might need to use some different tools (to learn) how to get cattle scattered across the landscape better. It could be fencing; it could be water location or other measures. But the research we did in Montana and Wyoming and a lot of other western states over the years found that, by strategically placing CRYSTALYX barrels in some of those underutilized areas, we could improve how often the cattle went back to those areas, because the supplement was there. And if they were in those areas more often, they grazed more in those areas. So, we found that we could increase the use of the grass available by about 15% in an area that was by a 500- to, say, a 600-yard radius. And if you think of that, that's a pretty good-size area. A 600-yard radius is equal to about 233 acres, more or less.

            And if you did some math — just assuming there was about 1,000 pounds per acre out there of forage that wasn't getting utilized; that might sound like a lot, but it really isn’t — but if you take that 15% better use of that grass, now, we’ve got about another over 17 tons of forage in 230 acres that can be available to that animal. That’s enough forage for about 100 cows for nearly two weeks, give or take a couple of days. And you know, that’s just an illustration, that number. That’s an illustration I like to use when I present that data, because I like to talk about 100 cow numbers, just for easy figuring. It’s rather a conservative number. Again, it can vary based on how productive a pasture is or how limited it may be due to drought.

            But you know, a lot of our listeners might be grazing pastures that are smaller than 233 acres. I think an awful lot of us probably do. And I don’t want that number to be irrelevant, because this concept still works on a lot of smaller pastures as well. And really, the bottom line is: If you are improving grazing distribution, you’ll have more days to graze. And CRYSTALYX would be the main focus or the main reason for the cattle to go into those underutilized areas. And they like the supplement. They’ll spend more time grazing in proximity to where the barrels are. And that just gives us more days to graze. And we can do that for a lot less cost than if we had to take the cattle off that pasture and go replace that pasture with purchased feed or even leased grass, leased or rented pasture, by putting CRYSTALYX out there to get a couple more weeks of grazing, (and that) is a lot more phenomenal.

Tom:    Are there certain CRYSTALYX products that actually fit better in a drought than other conditions?

Jon:      Yeah. We’ve talked about forage utilization and how important that is, and protein energy and phosphorus — (those) oftentimes are the most limited nutrients in drought-stricken forages, and (they are the ones that we should) look at approaching first.

            We would consider anything that’s under 7% crude protein to be what we call low-quality forage. And if you look at our supplementation guide, or the new CRYSTALYX app that was highlighted in a recent podcast, we would recommend products that are 25% crude protein or higher. And in low-quality-range forages, phosphorus can also be a concern, as mentioned earlier. And if CRYSTALYX is a full source of mineral, these products all contain some phosphorus as well — some of them as high as 2%; an awful lot of them are up to around 2%. There’s some that are just at 1% or just a tad lower, but there’s a mineral component to CRYSTALYX as well that’s important.

            And you know, we talked about water quality as well earlier. And I think it’s important to point out that if that surface water quality, if it’s an issue, it may have a higher concentration of sulfate, iron and other mineral salts that could potentially compromise the mineral status of the mineral. And you know, that really leads me to point out that we’ve been promoting our Blueprint formulation in CRYSTALYX for about three to four years now. And these formulas apply trace minerals, such as copper and zinc — and only in organic form, unlike a lot of conventional minerals that use inorganic forms. And really, guess what? Those inorganic forms in a conventional mineral are oftentimes sulfate-based. And so, if you’re battling high sulfates in your water with a water quality issue already, adding more sulfates in the mineral program really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

            So, again, to kind of sum it up, you really need to look at a supplement that’s providing adequate protein levels. Pay attention to your mineral sources, and look at that grazing distribution benefit. You know, I meant to say this when talking about grazing distribution, but better-managed pastures are going to actually perform better, even in a drought — kind of like better-managed cattle are probably going to perform better, (even) when they’re under a little bit of stress.

            I was just recently back at some family members’ (house) on their ranch in North Central Nebraska here about a month ago. It had been a hot, dry June, and the pastures are starting to burn up. But walking through some pastures there with some family members, looking at the grass, the pastures that had a history of really good management over the last 20, 25 years had a lot more grass available in them than some of the adjacent pastures that had not as good a management. It really was easy to see. And those pastures are going to be able to carry about the same number of cows for about the same number of days this year, even under some drought conditions.

Tom:    All right, it’s Jon Albro, regional sales manager with CRYSTALYX Brand Supplements. Thanks, Jon.

Jon:      Thank you, Tom. Enjoyed the conversation.