Drought puts strain on cattle operations

Published 8:42 am Thursday, December 8, 2016

In many areas of Davie and Yadkin counties, the lack of rainfall has caused pastures to stop growing and the winter feed supply is being used on many local farms.

“We are starting to see too many mouths and not enough hay,” said Phil Rucker, Extension livestock agent for both counties. “Even though the rain we have received in the last week or so has helped, it is still a long way from ending the drought.”

Livestock producers may have too many mouths to feed and not enough forage.  Here are a few options to consider. While most of this article is geared toward cattle, there are management tips that apply to horses, sheep, goats and other livestock, Rucker said.

Develop a feed budget for the herd. A feed budget is an estimate of the amount of feed required to carry the animals through a certain time period. Feed requirements depend on number of animals, daily forage intake needs, daily energy, protein and mineral needs, and the length of feeding period.

The second step is to assess feed inventories, if any, and then to determine additional feed needs, including forages and supplementary feeds. Assess pasture conditions. Pastures should not be grazed closer than 2-3 inches. Producers should start feeding cows before pastures are overgrazed.

The third step is to identify what feeds are available and run the numbers to see which one is least costly. If producers still have grass, then rotational grazing will help stretch it. Producers should provide supplemental hay or feed to cows so they can graze longer on the limited forage.

The fourth step is to see if reducing livestock numbers is less costly than procuring feed to maintain current numbers.

“As we know, cattle are cheaper than they were a few years back and hay is in short supply which could raise hay prices a little,” Rucker said. “Choices have to be made about selling low priced cattle to reduce the need for hay; purchasing hay to feed these low priced cattle, purchase supplements to stretch the hay supply and feed these low priced cattle, or seek other options to feed your herd.”

Here are a few management practices to consider.

• Don’t wait to late to decide if culling animals and reducing the herd size is the right move. “Everyone has at least a few animals that you could part company with and your herd would look better,” he said. “Every day you feed that questionable cow is one less day you will have hay for another cow you want to keep. Plus reducing the stocking rate reduces the amount of grass damaged and improves forage recovery in the spring.”

• The first and best place to start culling is open cows (not pregnant). “There is no use feeding precious hay to an animal that won’t produce a calf next year,” Rucker said. “Many small herd owners keep a bull in with the cows year round, but if you can find a place to put him tomorrow … another pasture, loan him to a neighbor … you can call a vet to pregnancy test your herd. There are no free lunches. Look at getting rid of cows not holding up their end of the bargain.”

• Look for other obvious physical defects to help rank cows for culling – old age, lameness, poor udders, missing teeth, low performers, poor keepers, bad disposition. If the drought deepens and hay resources are still not adequate, cull a few animals all along to stretch the feed. “Starting early is key and you will be glad you did.”

• Wean calves early or consider creep feeding them to reduce the stress and nutritional needs of mamma cows.

• Think of what options to grow forage this fall and winter. Practices like stockpiling tall fescue or planting small grain or ryegrass might be appropriate. Are there any cropland acres adjacent to pastures that could be planted and used for winter grazing? Most textbooks say it is too late to plant small grain or ryegrass but if there is enough moisture and some warm days, you can get enough grazing to justify planting soon.

• Can you reduce hay and supplement cows with commodities? “I have seen herds wintered on a half ration of hay and 5 lbs of a by-product feed each day. The workload is not pleasant, but the economics might surprise you.”

• If pasture forages are gone, put animals in a sacrifice area and feed in one spot. “It’s better to destroy one part of the farm than to ruin the grass on the whole place,” Rucker said. “The pasture acres that are rested and protected will respond quicker and pull you out of the situation faster once rainfall returns.”

• Finally, look for sources of hay and do some calculations. Cattle prices are not as strong as they were two years ago. “If buying hay, you don’t need much and it is available within a few hours’ drive it could be a good option.  It may only take some time searching on-line hay directories or making phone calls to locate the hay you need. The hay not sold now won’t be any cheaper in December, January, or later so go ahead and start hunting. And if you decide that the hay is too expensive, go back and read item 1.

“There is talk of shipping in hay but who knows how much, what the need will be or even if it will happen. The availability might not be enough to meet needs. I know of a few hay options locally but they will run out soon.

“Looking at other options might be a good idea just in case you have to do something besides purchase hay. Be open to new ideas and management practices. Find out some new ways work pretty well,” Rucker said.

For more on managing livestock during drought to improve forage, contact Rucker at 336/753-6100, or phil_rucker@ncsu.edu.