by Caleb Weiss, Ph.D., Pasture Feeds and Tub Manager
Drought conditions are inevitable in most locations and can create challenges for many cattle producers. They are often unpredictable and can affect an entire grazing system. Here are some tips to help navigate through a drought:
Have a drought forage management plan in place
It is obvious that during a drought, plant growth slows and results in less available forage for grazing. At this time, producers should consider a rotational grazing system in which cattle are moved from pasture to pasture, or sections of pasture are fenced off and not allowed graze for a period of time. This gives the forage in these pastures a chance to recover. Increased growth in these areas can result in more soil shading and help minimize soil moisture loss. Rotational grazing can also create more grazing pressure within the areas that are being utilized. This can be beneficial as cattle are selective grazers and will often consume the more palatable plants first, and may ignore the rest. Increasing grazing pressure can reduce selectivity options and lead to more uniform grazing of plant species and improved utilization of the pasture as a whole.
Another management practice during a drought would be to stockpile forage. This would mean to reserve a pasture and allow forage to accumulate to be used at a later time. This can be an option to provide forage when other sources are depleted; however, stockpiled forages are often mature and of poor quality, so supplemental feeds are recommended to ensure that animal nutrient requirements are met.
A drought can lead to some difficult management decisions for cattle producers. Culling of animals can alleviate the stress of a dry season. Cattle that are less productive, older, calve later, or have poor temperament should be considered for removal. It would also help to sell any yearlings or replacement heifer calves. Reducing the number of animal units will extend the amount of forage that is available and can benefit the rest of the herd.
Confined feeding may be another option to carry cows through a drought. Referred to as drylotting, cattle are removed from pasture and fed harvested forages or a mixed ration. It may be an alternative to reducing numbers or hauling cattle to another grazing location. This strategy would be advantageous to producers who are out of grazable forage and would like to maintain their cow herd.
Weaning calves early is another strategy to help mitigate the effects of a drought. In a drought plan, calves may be weaned at 3 to 5 months of age. Early weaned calves should be retained for a period of time and fed a high-quality starter diet in order to achieve the profit potential of conventionally weaned calves. The benefit of weaning early is it significantly reduces the nutrient demand of the cows and allows her requirements to closer match the nutrients supplied by drought stricken or poor forage conditions.
Do not forget about water
Water is the most important nutrient in livestock systems. During a drought, natural sources of water (e.g., ponds, lakes) may be depleted due to evaporation and are not restored from rainfall. This can increase the concentration of minerals and contaminants such as sulfates and nitrates which can be deadly at high enough levels. In addition, low levels of stagnant water can be at risk of toxins derived from algae blooms. Cattle producers should test water if suspected of these problems and need to be prepared to fence off these areas and bring in water from an outside source if necessary.
A drought can be a difficult time for most producers. Having a proper management plan set in place should help alleviate the toll it can have on cow/calf operations. Please contact your local QLF representative for more information.