Raising Beef Cattle During a Drought

June, 2017
Christa L. Kirby, Manatee County Cooperative Extension Service, Palmetto

No one needs to listen to the weather reports to realize that we are dealing with a drought that we have not experienced in several years. Everyone has ideas of how to effectively raise beef cattle during times of little water. Many think a drought only affects the forages for the beef cattle to graze; in reality, it affects all different aspects of the cattle industry, from marketing strategies, to feeding and managing of cattle onto healthcare of the cattle.

During a drought, a cattle producer must consider many things on the cattle operation. Some of the areas they must evaluate are stocking rates based on forage availability, culling cattle, early weaning, supplemental feeding, heat stress, reduction of drinking water resources, as well as pasture weeds. Some of these things to be evaluated are easier to manage than others.

When evaluating stocking rates, one must consider if the forage will be able to recover when moisture returns to the pasture. Pasture grass or forage should not become scarce every time that there is a shortage of moisture. If large quantities of forage are available following a drought period, the pastures are probably under stocked. Ideal grazing heights for bahiagrass are between 2-6 inches in height and 4-6 inches for bermudagrass. If your pastures are continually shorter than the lowest recommended grazing height your pastures are overstocked. Some sandy spots may appear in a pasture following a drought; however, the entire pasture should not become a beach. Proper nutritional inputs should also be applied to pastures during high stress times, such as a drought, to assist the forage production and health.

Culling cattle to assist with management can be a difficult decision. Producers need to make a cattle culling decision based on what is best for the operation now and in the future. By culling cattle you will in turn have more available forage for the animals you keep. If an operation has larger calves they may consider weaning them earlier and either selling them or retaining ownership. Culling dry cows who did not raise a calf may assist in the improvement in reproductive rates in the future.

Another consideration may be culling cows with calves that have not rebred. These cows will not provide you money the next year. Pregnancy rates must be considered; cows that are old or those who produce light weight weanling calves should be culled. Doing this will produce a higher quality herd and, more than likely, a younger cow herd. After these strategies have been used you may look further at your culling program and see what will assist with better producing cows in the future to provide higher income levels. Another consideration is to wean calves earlier than planned. During a drought situation weaning weights are almost always adversely affected. Some options to offset the decreased weaning weight are to creep feed the calves prior to weaning or to wean early and feed the calves separate from the cows. Cows in early to mid-pregnancy have a lower nutritional requirement, meaning they can maintain on lower quality forage with little supplementation required, if any.

Whether or not the decision is made to wean early, the main focus is to keep the cows in a good body condition so they will breed back. Hay or forage is traditionally the first supplementation of choice. If you chose to supplement with a grain it can require skill or discipline by management. A grain feed with a protein concentration between 10 and 12 percent is usually adequate. Producers should always consider the nutritional variances between different animals when planning their supplementation program. For example lactating cows have a higher nutritional requirement than that of a dry cow. Besides feeding grains, there are many other options to keep cows in a preferred body condition. Some other options may be liquid supplementation or by-products.

It is important that during hot, dry weather cattle have access to plenty of water. If ponds or other natural water sources begin to dry up, other sources of water must be supplied. Some cattlemen have added new ponds or had to clean the existing pond along with alternative drinking sources for their animals. When ponds become stagnant and low, salt, sulfate or blue-green algae can overgrow and become toxic to cattle. One way to reduce the algae growth is to aerate the pond if possible. If not, the pond may need to be fenced off and an alternative watering source provided.

Being able to recognize heat stress in your cattle is extremely important. Some signs of stress include crowding under shade or trees or in ponds or around water troughs. Cattle may also begin to salivate more and exhibit open-mouthed or rapid breathing. Some ways to minimize the affects of the heat and drought would be to make sure cattle have adequate shade to reduce heat stress. If animals are to be confined shade, fans, sprinklers and drinking water would be a way to reduce heat and stress.

As pastures begin to show bare spots, weeds and poisonous plants begin to appear. With a lack of forage, animals are more apt to eat plants that they normally would not. The best way to ensure that animals are not exposed to poisonous plants is to view pastures weekly and remove any unwanted plants through mechanical or chemical methods. Any plant that may be questionable should be removed.

The biggest thing is to ensure that animals have proper care and they have access to adequate feed and water sources. Ensuring this may require different strategies than normal. Each cattle operation is different; each must find its own cost efficient strategies.

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