In the last issue we began a discussion of management of the cow herd during summer periods, especially in those areas affected by low rainfall and drought. Obviously in these situations one of the primary problems we face is lack of available forages for grazing and harvest. This year, those challenges are coupled with high fuel, feed and fertilizer costs. At this point we will focus on management as related to forage availability in areas that have experienced continued lower rainfall.
It can reasonably be assumed that the average producer does not have an extensive irrigation system available to keep pastures and hay fields adequately hydrated. Thus, as moisture becomes scarce and plant growth slows we have to determine how to reduce the grazing pressure and plan for coming cooler months when harvested and stored forages are normally fed. Consider some of the following options:
1) Begin early culling. If there are individuals within your herd that you are considering taking for a ride, now is the time. Often, unproductive animals remain within the herd for sentimental reasons, to give them just “one more chance” or because we're not disciplined enough to stay on top of basic management processes. Unproductive cattle are expensive even under the best of circumstances. This is especially true when forages are limited and may have to be purchased and, again, with the costs of inputs at this point in time, an unproductive animal is just too expensive to remain in the herd.
2) Consider early weaning. It may be helpful to remove calves a few months early to reduce the energy requirements on the cow. Obviously, determining a marketing strategy for these calves becomes necessary but numerous alternatives exist. Most importantly, early weaning reduces the load on the cow and reduces forage consumption a certain degree.
3) Consider purchasing hay from outside sources – sooner rather than
later. If your forage and hay supply is insufficient it may become necessary to buy hay from other area producers or even producers from farther away. Should drought conditions become longer term or more severe, availability of hay may become short. It is wise to begin this process early in order to take advantage for earlier pricing and lower demand. The longer you wait, the higher the demand will be and the higher your costs will be. It also makes sense to spread these purchases over a period of time, i.e. don't buy all your forage needs from one source or all at one time. Unless you are reasonably confident that this is the best buy. As these conditions develop, in many cases, state and other agencies develop databases which can match hay buyers and sellers. Remember that you need to familiarize yourself with the hay markets and that hay purchases need to be based on quality, not quantity. It is always best to get an analysis of the hay you will be purchasing. A tremendous amount of exceptionally poor quality hay has been traded in the past at exorbitant prices during periods of drought. Be sure you know what you are buying. It is always best to buy your forage based on a forage analysis so you have some idea what some of the basic nutrients are within the purchased product.
4) Look at alternative roughage sources. A number of different sources are available which can replace hay to a certain degree if not completely. Interestingly cotton by-products make up a significant portion of this. Cottonseed Hulls, Gin Trash (whole, ground or pelleted), Gin Mote (Linter's tailings), milo stubble, corn stubble, etc. are all effective fiber sources and can be purchased at variable pricing. The table below illustrates the nutrient profile of a number of these sources and compares these to alfalfa, bermudagrass and sorghum-sudangrass hay.
As you can see the, in many cases, the overall quality of the alternative roughage is significantly lower than conventional hays. The protein tends to be lower and the fiber components higher and in some cases less digestible. The advantage, however, is that these materials tend to be available even when hay supplies become short. Secondly, they can normally be acquired at a fairly low price (relatively speaking). Again, it is important to buy these roughage sources based on nutrient content in an effort to improve on your production costs.
Feeding of materials such as this normally requires supplementation of protein, energy, minerals and vitamins which contributes to the cost. Under most circumstances, however, a program such as this is temporary and used only while conventional forage sources are unavailable.
5) “Stress-Proof” your herd. Stress-proofing is probably not the correct terminology. More accurately you need to compensate for the effects of heat and drought stress as we discussed in the last issue. One of the most significant contributions you can make is to keep out a high quality, palatable mineral. One of the primary stress effects is the reduction in concentration of various circulating mineral levels in the blood from urination, salivation, etc. As these mineral levels decrease, certain normal physiological processes become less efficient and the animal no longer performs as well. Additionally, it is helpful to provide a mineral which includes a yeast package which has been shown to reduce stress effects as mentioned above.
6) Be aware of certain problematic situations caused by
drought effects on different feeds and forages. When situations occur as they have this year it is necessary to be aware of conditions that can occur such as high nitrate levels, prussic acid poisoning, ergot toxicity, aflatoxin, etc. These are all potentially deadly conditions to the animal that can develop in plants or grains and are a natural response to the heat and drought stress.
7) Be aware that years such as these can have profound effects
on the cattle markets. If conditions remain dry substantial liquidation of cattle may occur, forcing cattle prices down. This can provide an opportunity to purchase cattle at discounted pricing if you have a place to go with these animals, either to pasture or feedyard. Similarly, these conditions will have a negative effect on overall productivity, reproductive performance will deteriorate due to decreased nutrient intake. This will affect performance in months and years to come. Gains of cattle on grass will likewise suffer somewhat. The main point here, however is that overall economics are taken into consideration.
Conditions such as these are not the end of the world. They do, however require that you plan more and that you use some imagination and creativity. I am familiar with individuals that were exceptionally profitable during the last dry period we had. But because of their foresight, planning and creativity, turned it into an opportunity for profit-taking. Do your homework, talk to everyone you can and plan, plan, plan.
Early Weaning Strategies
As mentioned above, early weaning is a possible option for reducing forage demand and stress on the cow herd. The following provides some additional guidelines.
• Early weaning of calves is one possible option in drought situations that may give the producer an opportunity to reduce losses or avoid making forced sales of good breeding stock that would otherwise have to be sold on a low priced market. The early weaning program will depend upon the condition of the cow and the age of the calf.
• Early weaning will permit more cows to be carried per acre of pasture, reducing the number of cows that may have otherwise had to be sold. In most cases, early weaning will mean the calves have to be fed in dry lot, therefore adding feed and overhead costs that would not be incurred on later-weaned calves.
• With proper feeding management, however, early-weaned calves can grow as rapidly as they would have while in the nursing stage and in many cases will grow faster if the drought is very severe.
• Returns would not be expected to increase by early weaning, so this system would only be used during times of short feed supplies and drought conditions. Calves that are weaned early should probably be classified into age groups and managed differently depending upon their age. An adequate classification would be under 6 weeks, 6 weeks to 3 months, 3 to 6 months, and 6 months and older. Calves under 6 weeks should probably not be weaned unless absolutely necessary, since they need mother's milk and the cost of supplying this by artificial means is costly and risky to the life of the calf. Calves three to six months can be fed good quality hay and grain. Calves older than six months will require no special treatment other than the proper care and feeding. When calves are weaned early, they should be started on feed about 3 weeks before weaning to ensure that they will eat after weaning.
• Calves weaned from three to six months of age should be fed rations containing at least 12 to 14 percent protein. It may also be useful to add enough molasses to ensure that the calves are eating at least three percent of their body weight per day.
• Calves older than six months should be fed good quality hay and a small amount of grain -- two to four pounds per day. This should ensure that they are growing at a rate equivalent to what they would be if they were still nursing. The use of straw in growing calves has not been successful because straw has little energy in relation to the amount of bulk. It is also poor in palatability. If it is necessary that some straw be used in calf ration, it should be only a small percentage of the ration.
• Little or no green feed or carotene, which is converted to vitamin A for calves or cows, may be available during drought a drought period. Even though cattle can store vitamin A in their liver and fat from four to six months, supplementing vitamin A either in the ration or through vitamin A injections may be needed during drought. Inclusion of a high quality free-choice mineral is probably the best route.
• Research has shown that early-weaned calves, with proper management and feeding, can equal weight of calves raised on their dam. In a study in Oklahoma, early-weaned calves from thin two-year-old cows reared in dry lot weaned at about the same weight as calves raised on dams. Early weaning improved the heifer conception rates from 59 to 97 percent. Heifers with the early-weaned calves gained more in the fall than heifers that had suckled their calves. Another study in Kansas evaluated calves weaned at 50 days of age, with herd mates receiving creep feed or just allowed to nurse their dams in the dry lot without creep. The early-weaned calves gained more than either the creep-fed calves or the nursing-only calves during a trial period of 107 days.
• During drought creep feeding is another alternative that some producers may wish to consider to ensure heavier calves at weaning. Under normal conditions creep feeding has been a marginal management practice due to poor conversion rates of creep feed to increase weaning weights. Under drought conditions with poor milking cows, gains may be less. Creep feed has been more effective when cows are milking poorly because of poor range or because cows are young and not producing as much milk. Under most conditions grain can be used as a creep feed since milk will serve to keep protein up to the level needed.
As with many situations, management of forages during summer periods becomes and issue of supply and demand – how to increase the supply, reduce the demand or both. On top of this is added the factor of reducing heat effects as effectively as possible during this period to reduce the stress placed on the animal. And finally, this year we have the additional economic issues that producers face. Needless to say, this is a challenging period for the producer.
In the next issue we'll discuss managing feed sources during exceptionally dry periods and evaluate the effect this has on animal nutrition.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 885-7992 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more information please visit www.blnconsult.com.