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Feeding Strategies During Drought

Livestock Update, July 2007

Dr. Mark L. Wahlberg, Extension Animal Scientist


Cattle and sheep producers in some parts of Virginia are already experiencing feed shortages due to drought conditions.  For those of you who are not in that shape, don't let your guard down.  Two weeks of hot and dry weather can shift conditions very quickly.  In this article I want to provide reminders for the strategies to consider when drought causes feed shortages.

Some nutritional ground rules have to be taken care of.  Cows with calves have higher requirements for nutrition than do females that have been dried off.  They also have a bigger appetite.  High levels of nutrition are needed not only to support milk production, but also to enable the female to successfully re-breed.  Cattle require a minimum of 1/2 % of their body weight in the form of effective fiber or long forage daily.  So, high level of nutrition and supplementation should be continued through the end of the breeding season.

Consider the following options with cows prior to the end of breeding:

Strategies to consider once the breeding season is over can be more dramatic.  Remember, the critical nutrient needs occur from calving through breeding.  So when the cows have had enough opportunity to get bred and you pull the bulls, level of feeding can go down.

Alternatives to pasture must be found when drought causes the grass to not grow.  Substitute forage sources are not prevalent, and are usually expensive.  In addition to hay, some possibilities are Cottonseed hulls, Peanut hulls, Broiler litter, but cost and availability are limitations.

Grain is a more cost-effective source of nutrition.  Whole shelled corn and whole barley can be used interchangeably.  In addition, soy hulls, corn gluten feed, wheat midds, and distillers grains have energy content similar to corn.  Brewers grains is somewhat lower in energy, but may be useful if it can be purchased at a fairly low cost.  **Caution** Some byproduct feeds are available in high moisture form.  Do not be suckered into a low cost per ton for a high moisture feed.  A feed with 25% dry matter that costs $35 per ton is actually $140 per ton of dry matter.  Compare price on an equal moisture basis.  Your local Extension Agent can provide assistance.

High grain with limited roughage will likely be the lowest cost feeding program for cows.  When feeding this type of diet, though, the mineral program must be changed.  Because of the high grain level, a mineral that has a lower Phosphorous and higher Calcium level needs to be used, similar to what would be fed to a steer in a feedlot.

Finally, some thoughts on forage management.

Lack of rain and hungry cattle are a bad combination.  Many cattlemen have found the nutritional solution to this problem with grain feeding and limited hay.  Early weaning of the calves further eases the feed shortage and enables calves to continue to grow.

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