Making Early-Season Cattle Management Decisions in a Drought

This past year was challenging for many cattle producers, due to lack of rainfall and subsequent feed shortages. Some cows came through winter in poor condition. This spring will be tough for many producers and require some hard decisions. “Early weaning (maybe extremely early) will probably be more of a consideration this year, as well as doing the math on maintaining cows by sending them to a feedlot or renting pasture in an area not affected by drought, versus selling part of the herd,” says Janna Block, livestock systems specialist, Hettinger Research Extension Center, North Dakota State University.

Developing water sources can be a long-term solution to poor water quality during a drought, but take planning and investment. Photo by Heather Hamilton Maude.

Every ranch is a different in terms of feed resources. Some producers may have a couple years’ hay in reserve but others don’t have anything left after winter feeding. “Many people overgrazed last year because feed was short,” Block says. “Those pastures may be slow recovering. The next 2 months will be crucial for rainfall, especially in the northern Great Plains. We desperately need precipitation in April and May because the majority of forage growth is done by June.”

“People should be looking at the drought monitors and outlooks; there are many tools to help us evaluate what our forage production might be, based on rainfall and local conditions. We know that nutrient requirements dramatically increase for lactating cows, and peak lactation occurs about 60 days after calving. This will be their highest point of requirements for the year,” she explains.

Forage & Nutrition

If there is decent forage growth and quality, lactating cows can get by fine on pasture, but this year pastures may not be as good as hoped. “Some people are looking at a later turnout date, which means feeding cows longer. It usually depends on what their calving time is, when those cows will reach peak lactation, and what their feed resources are,” says Block.

We also have to think about breeding season. “Requirements for lactation, body maintenance and growth always have higher priority than reproduction and if cows don’t have adequate nutrition to cover these priorities and start cycling, they won’t rebreed in a timely manner,” she says.

Take a good look at your forage production, in terms of quality and quantity, to determine if you need to use a supplement. Perhaps the supply is adequate, but we don’t know the nutrient levels. This might be a year to test forages. “It’s hard to accurately sample and test standing forages, but it provides valuable information when choosing the best type of supplement. If forage is green, it is higher quality than if it is mature and dry. If there’s a lot of old growth in the pasture (not much new growth, but adequate forage available), the cows might benefit from a protein supplement,” Block says.

“If there isn’t an adequate supply of forage, we need to supplement with some type of energy—either harvested forages or a fiber-based energy supplement like a by-product feed. This could be wheat midds or other fiber-based energy feeds that won’t interfere with fiber digestion. Assess pasture health and decide whether to supplement the cows out on pasture or move them to a dry-lot situation.” This might be at home, or sending the cows somewhere else.

“Even if you are supplementing–substituting for a portion of what would have been grazed forage–if the cows are on the pasture they have an impact on that pasture. There’s not much forage cover right now on many pastures,” she says. It might be best to move the cows off so they don’t keep negatively impacting it, and maybe the forage plants will have more chance to recover.

“We might turn out later, but this is a hard choice because many people only have low-quality forages to feed them—and hay is expensive right now. So is grain. Often in a drought we say limit-feeding might be a good option because concentrates have a higher energy value, but this isn’t going to be cheap.”

The problem in many regions is that this is not the first year of drought. “Most people can make it through one year but the second or third year can be more difficult if there isn’t any hay to put up. Using purchased feeds will put some producers in an impossible situation.” Some people are looking at culling hard, selling some cows, and trying to purchase enough feed for the rest of the herd.

Others might consider moving cows out of state, to a region not affected by drought—if they can find pasture to rent. “There are many questions that go with that decision. Check references and make sure the people who will be taking care of the cattle are reputable, and check into health situations and requirements involved in shipping cows out of state,” says Block.

Early Weaning

Another option to consider is early weaning. Some folks wean calves early from first-calf heifers so they can regain lost body condition and not come up open, or help them go into winter in better flesh, with greater chance to have a healthy calf next year and rebreed again on schedule. “Removing the lactation requirement from thin young cows makes it easier for them to meet their requirements for growth and be in better body condition before breeding,” says Block.

This year, however, some folks may early-wean all their calves. “Even though most people want the calves to be at least 3 to 4 months old at weaning, a person can do it even earlier,” she says. You need to plan ahead and have your facilities set up for younger, smaller calves, so they can reach the waterer and eat from a bunk.

“There are some complete feeds formulated for young weaned calves, and we often recommend starting with those and building a ration from there. Calves perform very well when early-weaned, if they have access to high-quality feeds and are managed correctly,” she says.

Early weaning can save on forage; dry cows won’t need as much forage and this might allow producers to cull fewer cows. A person needs to pencil it out, to see what will work. Early weaning will require more labor and possibly some change in facilities.

With early-weaned calves there are a variety of marketing options; they can be sold whenever the market is best. They are already weaned and ready to go. “They can go to grass somewhere, or to a feedlot if they get to what a normal weaning weight would be,” says Block.

Talking to people who have done this before can be helpful. “We have a video available through NDSU Extension in which we interviewed producers who used early weaning in various situations. The goal of this video was to glean tips from producers who have done it, and learn from them.” They tell other producers what works for them or some of the things that have gone wrong and what to avoid—things they might do differently next time. We can always learn from other people’s experiences and misadventures, and maybe avoid some mistakes in our own efforts.


Water is another consideration on a dry year. “This year we’ve already seen some water quality issues. This was a huge issue last summer. Many of the dams and ponds have not recharged. Water supplies are low, and contain more dissolved solids. If you had bad water last summer and fall, you likely have bad water now. Before you turn out, check the water. Most Extension offices have test strips and you can do some initial screening, to look at sulfates and TDS (total dissolved solids) and nitrate levels. If there are some red flags, we can send samples to a lab for more extensive testing,” she says.

“In drought years people often try to develop alternative water sources. There were challenges last summer with not enough labor available to get wells drilled. There are funds available to help with these projects but there were so many people interested in doing this that the programs were overwhelmed,” she says.It is important to plan ahead, and create alternative or additional water sources before getting into a drought.

When we think about forage availability and trying to remove lactation demands on the cows, there are many ways to reduce a cow’s maintenance requirements. “This might mean looking at how far the cows must travel to water. Is there a way we can reduce that? Is there shade available? All these things play a role, by letting those animals utilize available nutrients a little more efficiently.” We want to help the cows get by in hot weather and challenging conditions this summer.

People often think about the cows first, rather than the pasture or range health. “We need to keep in mind the impact on pasture and rangelands,” says Block. After several years of drought, we may have abused them and they will take longer to recover.

“We need pasture available for the future, or we won’t be in business. We must keep in mind how every decision we make will impact long-term production of pastures and range. If people haven’t determined what stocking rates should be in reduced forage situations, now would be a great time to talk to your NRCS professionals or Extension resources, on how to calculate forage production and determine stocking rate and capacity. We know that in many cases it will be reduced, but we need to know how much. Knowing what that resource is and what it might be, and monitoring carefully, will help us get the best results,” she says.

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