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Drought management for cattle producers

Black Angus Cow with Calf

We moved through some of the wettest years in history to a drought situation for many cattle producers. For those caught in the drought cycle, care of the cow herd, costs, feed inventory and preservation of forage supplies were front and centre. For some, relief came with recent rains — too late for hay, but options for alternate feed sources appeared that didn’t exist even a month ago.

The right answers around “where to from here” are rarely pure and never simple. The key to navigating through drought is having a plan in place. It’s important to push emotion aside and make objective decisions on factors like:

  • Duration of drought
  • Current feed and water reserves
  • Body condition of cows
  • Existing health status of calves
  • Financial resources available

Skilled help is available through veterinarians, beef extension specialists and agriculture consultants.

Planning starts with understanding how drought affects pastures, forage and grazing livestock. Knowing what impact drought has on the health and reproductive capacity of the cow herd — both short and long term becomes very important. Drought management strategies basically fall into three categories: livestock inventory; use of existing forage resources; and alternative feeding programs.

Adjusting livestock inventory to balance total forage required with that available is the most economical alternative. Individual production records are handy. Consider culling females in the bottom 15 to 20 per cent of herd production for two to three years in succession and cull early. Remove yearlings from pasture early and sell or dry lot. Because lactation pressure is not removed from the dam when calves are creep fed, early weaning may be a better alternative. Consider keeping fewer replacement heifers. It may be more economical to retain young, healthy, open cows instead of heifers. Consult your veterinarian to ensure there are no health issues.

The fertility of cows drops significantly when body condition scores dip below 2.5. Going into winter thin makes it difficult for cows to sustain reproductive momentum. Gaining weight through late stages of pregnancy is difficult. Thin cows produce lightweight calves, are often open or fail to cycle, which extends calving season affecting two years of production. Early weaning helps brood cows rebuild body reserves in a drought year and rebreed the following season. Open, unproductive cows, especially those that are not sound, are simply not worth keeping and should be culled.

South Dakota beef specialists Warren Rusche and Elaine Grings remind producers that weaning calves early has advantages to the ranch beyond differences in cow performance and body condition. Rusche explains, “Early weaning’s big advantage is reducing lactation demands. Early weaning helps first-calf heifers, because two-year-olds are still growing. The biggest advantage of early weaning is feed savings. Early weaning results in a 28 per cent reduction in daily forage demand. Early-weaned calves on high-quality diets gain weight efficiently.

Marketing early-weaned calves at weaning can be challenging. Feedlot operators need to know they are managing early-weaned calves so nutritional adjustments can be made. Early-weaned calves will spend more total days on harvested feed, but usually reach slaughter weight at a younger age.

Another concern is calf health. Reducing separation and handling stress, providing proper nutrition, and preconditioning against disease improves calf performance into the growing and finishing period. Because calves do not have to deal with colder, wetter weather, transition through the weaning process can be relatively smooth provided they consume enough feed. Vaccination protocols, parasite control (internal parasites, external parasites, and coccidia), and treatment regimes for sick calves are important elements of a health program. Veterinarians can help with these plans. Use of metaphylaxis (treating the entire pen upon arrival) may be warranted for some early-weaned calves.

Summer rains alleviated moisture shortages for a number of cattle producers. To varying degrees, pastures and hayfields responded with a burst of growth, often too late for harvesting hay, but providing opportunity for grazing. Late-summer and fall alfalfa may be some of this year’s best pasture. Points to consider for grazing alfalfa stands between now and freeze-up and beyond:

  • Alfalfa in late summer and autumn is high-quality pasture for preconditioning calves and putting body condition on bred cows.
  • The risk of bloat is highest in fall — new-growth alfalfa is highly digestible and animals consume it exclusively when other grasses are dry. With the potential for pasture bloat, ranchers should implement a bloat prevention program when grazing alfalfa-dominated hayfields.
  • Alfasure provides an effective and economical option for controlling bloat on pasture.
  • Ideally, alfalfa needs about 40 days of uninterrupted growth before a killing frost. Hardening reduces the water content of plant tissues and prevents frost damage.
  • Consider grazing rather than cutting second-growth fields after a killing frost. Grazing is more apt to leave taller stubble than cutting, and this will catch more snow. Grazing after a killing frost does not eliminate bloat.
  • If using alfalfa for late-season pasture, don’t overgraze, (try strip grazing and leave some stubble). In general, it would be better to graze older rather than younger stands during the fall rest period. Older stands have already recovered the cost of establishment and by definition have few productive years remaining. Another reason for early weaning is better use of limited water supplies. Early weaning significantly lowers water requirements for mature cows. Lactating beef cows drink about 18 per cent of their body weight per day compared to 12 per cent for a dry cow (a difference of seven gallons or 33 litres per day). Dry cows also tend to travel farther for water and feed than nursing cows.

The ripple effect of drought management planning not only keeps herds healthy through difficult times, but profitable as well.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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