Rick Rasby: Cattle management decisions during drought
As drought continues in many areas, livestock producers may want to consider alternatives to using summer pastures. Rick Rasby, beef extension specialist at the University of Nebraska, says producers need to minimize the negative impact livestock, combined with drought conditions, is having on summer range.
“It is important to take care of the grass to maintain long-term sustainability,” Rasby said during a recent Ranching for Profitability conference in Sidney, NE.
He shared ideas with producers to help alleviate the strain on pastures – the biggest one being to secure an alternative feed source.
“If you can secure some hay or another type of feed, you should have enough to last until cornstalks or another feed source is available,” Rasby explained. “Work these things into a drought management plan to keep the costs down.”
Rasby also encouraged producers to plan ahead to purchase their feed supply, and look for opportunities to reduce waste in what they do feed.
“Find an efficient feeding system, and don’t overfeed. It may be better to slightly underfeed the cattle just so they will do a good job cleaning up,” he said.
In operations that have both cow-calf and yearlings, the beef specialist said this is the year they should consider either putting yearlings into a feedlot or selling them early to save grass.
Cow-calf operators can consider early weaning. Calves can be weaned as early as 45 days, although 90 days may be more manageable.
“If you decide to wean early, I would recommend consulting with a veterinarian on a herd health and vaccination program,” Rasby said. “You may also want to consider preconditioning calves so they stay healthy.”
By weaning early, a non-lactating cow needs 4.6 to 5.9 pounds less forage than a lactating cow. For every 2.5 days a calf is weaned, it provides a non-lactating cow enough forage to graze an additional day. By early weaning calves, producers may free up enough grass to maintain cows for more time, he added.
“If you early wean your calves, you might want to consider creep feeding them so they will be bunk broke,” Rasby said. “It can decrease mortality and morbidity when you move them into a drylot.”
Producers may not want to creep feed their calves for too long before weaning because calves will grow faster, consume more milk thus increase the cow’s nutritional requirements, he added.
Once calves are weaned, they should be fed a high-quality diet with particles that are uniform in size, because calves will sort the feed, Rasby said. He recommends course grinding all feed ingredients. The diet should contain 65-75 percent TDN for energy, and 14-16 percent crude protein. The calves should gain an average of 2 to 2.2 pounds per day.
Rasby encouraged producers to retain ownership of their calves because early-weaned calves that are fed high-energy (starch) diets have a high likelihood of grading USDA Choice or better. Starch in the diet appears to triggers the marbling gene, making calves marble better, Rasby said. He shared a study that resulted in 70 percent of calves (both steers and heifers, British- and Continental-cross) fed this type of diet graded Choice or better.
Another reason to retain ownership is to increase the chances of breaking even, he continued.
“I don’t know if producers can generate enough dollars from these smaller calves to make production costs for these cows breakeven,” he said. “It may be better to retain ownership as long as possible to give the calves a chance to grow so that a producer can breakeven and cover his production costs.”
Rasby said this is the year to cull poor and open cows. Pregnancy-check cows early and sell opens, or moving them to a drylot if they need to gain some additional weight.
“Don’t put a lot of money into cull cows this year,” he advised. “Pregnancy-check those cows 40 days after breeding, and don’t put expensive forage into cows that don’t have a calf in them.”
Producers should also review cows’ production records for the last three years. Cull any cows that consistently perform at the bottom. Also, consider culling any old cows that are close to producing their last calf.
Rasby acknowledges that some of these management decisions are hard to swallow. But during a year when grass is short, if a producer can keep their whole herd intact, it may be one of those years when breakeven is good, he said.
Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, contact Rasby at 402-472-6477.