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Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

The Cow-Calf Manager

Livestock Update, June 2006

John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech

Dry Weather Forces Feed and Forage Decisions

The weather across Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic this spring was very unpredictable. First crop hay varies from decent yields to very low yields. Pasture availability is below normal for this time of year with most pastures headed out. Soil moisture levels are low, but predictions are for near normal rainfall in June. Managers need to make decisions on forage management and feed alternatives to keep feed costs low while maintaining animal performance.

Pasture and Forage Strategies
Increase use of rotational grazing. Giving pastures some rest during dry conditions is essential to increasing forage availability as well as reducing overgrazing. During dry conditions, pastures may need 30 to 45 days rest between grazings.

Subdividing pastures with a single strand of high tensile electric or temporary electric fence is a quick and easy way to increase rotational grazing. My family and I use portable 12v fence chargers on the farm we rent. These chargers produce 3,000 to 6,000 volts on the fence which results in good stock control.

Putting a hay field into the rotation will provide extra grazing for cows and rest for other pastures. In addition, if second cutting hay crop is short, grazing is more economical than cutting and baling. Producers may need to be creative in order to supply water to cattle grazing hayfields. However, options such as large nurse tanks on a hay wagon hooked up to a standard water trough can supply sufficient water for herds of 20 to 30 cows for 1 to 3 days. Remember to provide 20 to 30 gallons of water per cow/calf pair per day.

Weed control. Weed control in pastures is critically important especially in dry years. Most weeds consume large amounts of water for their growth. In addition, they reduce grazable forage or access to grazable forage produced in the pasture. Research from Dr. Scott Haygood at Virginia Tech indicates that although grass grows in and around weeds such as thistles, cattle avoid grazing grass for several feet around these plants. Many products are available for control of pasture weeds that have no grazing restrictions for beef cattle (i.e. Grazon P+D, Milestone). For more information on pasture weed control consult you County Extension Agent or local Co-op manager. A good publication, “Control of Common Pasture and Hayfield Weeds in Virginia and West Virginia”, is available at or from your Extension Agent.

Plant Summer Annual. It is not too late to plant summer annuals for hay or grazing. Forages such as pearl millet, sudex, or forage sorghum will produce 2 to 4 tons per acre of hay or grazing. For grazing, pearl millet is the preferred species because of growth habit and no problems with prussic acid poisoning. Sudex makes excellent grazing, but producers must pay more attention to grazing management, and grazing should be avoided if plants are drought stress as they will produce prussic acid. Forage sorghum and Sudex are excellent hay crops. Prussic acid levels drop dramatically in hay stored for one or two months. Warm season annual hay should be stored covered or in a barn as the large stem size allows deep water penetration into the bale. The VCE publication on Warm Season Annuals can be accessed at

Feed and Feeding Management Alternatives
If pasture and forage management strategies are not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the cow herd then producers need to consider feed and feed management options.

Limit feeding hay or pasture. Supplementation of cattle on pastures or while feeding hay with a high energy source can reduce the amount of forage needed. Ideally, cattle should still have access to about 1% of there body weight in hay or pasture to maintain rumen health. This means 10 to 15 lbs of hay for most mature cows.

Although corn is an excellent source of energy for cattle (and often very economical), producers may find an advantage to using alternative feeds such as corn gluten feed, soy hulls, wheat mids, or brewers grains. These feeds are high in energy, but the energy comes from highly digestible fiber instead of starch. In addition, alternative feeds provide more protein than corn. Fiber based feeds are less likely to cause problems with acidosis should cattle accidentally over-consume the feed. When fed at a rate of up to 0.5% of body weight (about 6 lbs per cow), alternative feeds can be fed every other day whereas corn needs to be fed daily. For example, cows could be fed 6 lbs. of corn every day or 12 lbs. of soy hulls every other day.

Feeding hay during the summer to allow fall stockpiling. Feeding hay to cows on a sacrifice pasture so other pastures are allowed time for rest and re-growth is a good strategy. Similarly, using some hay in July, August, and September to allow for stockpiling of fescue is a good strategy especially for fall calving herds.

Animal Management Strategies
One of the most important strategies is to reduce the nutrient needs of cattle. This reduction in nutrient demands allows producers to focus limited feed resources and purchased feed on the most productive segment of the herd. Young growing cattle and cows being rebred are the most productive groups.

Judicious culling. Old cows, crippled cows, and open cows should be eliminated from the herd. These cows are not very productive, but continue to consume feed at the same rate as productive cows. If dry conditions persist, cows will continue to lose weight and be worth less money. In addition, extended drought conditions will drive down the price of cull cows as more cows are sold as operations run out of feed or water.

Early weaning. Weaning of calves at 4 months rather than the normal 7 to 8 months will reduce cow nutrient requirements and allow feed resources to be used for rapidly growing cows. Cow energy needs drop by 1/3 when calves are weaned. As a result, cows can be fed lower quality feeds and still will maintain body condition. Calves will grow better when fed early weaning diets than if left on limited pasture and mom. Information on early weaning and diets for calves and cows can be found on our Extension Beef web site at or by contacting your local Extension Animal Science Agent.

Disclaimer: The use of trade names in this publication does not imply endorsement of the product named or imply criticism of products not named.

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