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CATTLE TODAY

PRODUCERS FACING DROUGHT MUST MAKE CRITICAL CHOICES

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Once again, many parts of the country continue to deal with the effects of drought conditions. In some areas this has now persisted for several years with only small degrees of relief. This has become an exceptionally critical situation in some areas where even water supplies are at an all-time low. When forage quality and/or quantity is affected by drought, livestock producers are usually faced with decisions about supplemental feeding and in many cases feeding in general. In years such as these in many areas producers have had to purchase everything, hay or other forages, supplements, feeds and given the cost of many inputs this has been extremely challenging. In drought situations, and given the circumstances as they have been producers must first determine whether they can afford to feed and or supplement, and if so, then decide what to supplement and how to manage feeding. A second question then arises – “can I afford to feed or supplement to normal production levels. The producer has to understand that if he only feeds to maintenance levels that he will suffer production losses, some significant in the future (reduced conceptions, reduced weaning weights, reduced immunocompetence). A final questions becomes, “do I need to cull some of my herd and if such, how deeply?”

Whether to Supplement

As the above points out, when deciding whether or not to feed during a drought, the first question a producer should ask is, “Can I afford to meet the animal's nutrient requirements and at what level?” rather than, “How much can I afford to spend on feed?” (and hope that whatever is in it does the job).

A good place to start is with a monitoring program for animal body condition. As always, this should be a routine part of management. To further define what specific dietary nutrients may be lacking and in turn, what kind and how much of the supplement might remedy the problem, livestock managers can use additional tools such as forage testing and fecal analysis. Results of these tests can indicate the diet quality of pasture or range animals.

Supplementation in Relation to Forage Quality and Quantity

The goal of a supplemental feeding program is to augment a forage-based diet. Therefore, having a proper stocking rate is critical, because even in drought situations, the majority of dry matter consumed by livestock should come from pasture forage.

This typically means adjusting stocking rate to a level appropriate for forage supply, and then supplementing protein to improve diet quality and forage consumption. In planning, remember that an average 1,000-pound cow will consume 20 to 30 pounds of dry forage per day or two to three percent of her body weight. Either hay or high energy supplements may be used to extend or partially replace existing forage supplies. Note, however, that this comes at higher cost, and when more than three pounds of high energy supplements are used, it results in lower feed efficiencies. Therefore, this technique is probably best reserved for specific, short-term situations. Supplementing large amounts of energy in any form for long periods is usually uneconomical.

Remember also that if high-energy grain supplements are chosen to compensate for short grass (probably being fed at more than two to three pounds per day), feeding frequency may affect animal performance. Feed grain supplements daily (as opposed to skipping days and increasing amounts). This will help keep acidosis problems in check and minimize the inhibitory effects of grain on digestibility of pasture forage.

As an alternative, supplements that are high in digestible fiber, such as soybean hulls, beet or citrus pulp and peanut skins (not hulls), etc., can also be used to extend forage supplies. These supplements provide energy, but because they are lower in starch, they lessen undesirable effects on the digestibility of pasture forage.

What to Supplement

When evaluating supplements, remember that there are no “magic bullets.” Animals will perform as long as the supplement compensates for the nutrients (all nutrients) that are lacking in the diet.

The average 1,000 lb. dry cow requires a minimum of eight percent crude protein in her diet just to keep the digestive system microbes healthy and working on forage digestion. Therefore, the first limiting nutrient in dormant or drought-stressed forage is usually protein. When evaluating supplements, the most important factors to consider are nutrient content and price per pound of nutrient(s) in the supplement. To choose the right one for your herd, you need to not only calculate the cost per pound of supplement, but also consider the supply and quality of available forage. For example: You are comparing two types of cubes to add crude protein to the livestock diet. One cube contains 38 percent crude protein, the other 20 percent.

Which is the better buy?

First, calculate the cost per pound of crude protein. The 38-percent cube provides 760 pounds of crude protein per ton of bulk feed; at $350 per ton, it costs $0.46 to provide a pound of protein. The 20 percent cube provides 400 pounds of actual protein per ton of bulk feed; at $310 per ton, it costs $0.78 to provide a pound of crude protein.

If protein were the only concern, then the 38 percent cube would be the better buy. However, if grass is not only dormant but also in short supply, then the 20 percent cube, fed at twice the rate, would probably be a more complete feed because it would provide some extra energy as well. Note however, that this would add 30 percent to the overall cost of the supplemental feeding program. The form of supplement—be it block, tub, cube, meal, etc.—is unimportant as long as the animal consumes enough of it to compensate for nutrients lacking in the pasture diet. If animal supplemental requirements are particularly high, some types of self-fed supplements may limit intake to a level below what is needed. Molasses is another energy supplement that is often used to stretch forage supplies. It is convenient because it can be self-fed, and in most cases it also contains some type of protein additive as well as other nutrients. Be careful however, many pre-formulated molasses-based supplements use high levels of non-protein nitrogen (NPN), such as urea, as their primary “protein” source. High NPN supplements are not drought supplements. If and when they are used, it should be in situations such as this: forage is abundant, but dormant; dietary protein requirements are low (dry mature females); and protein deficiency is only minor. Never feed a high NPN/Urea feed to hungry cattle!

Feed Management Guidelines

One of the most useful guidelines is to sort and feed livestock by age, body condition and production status (growing vs. mature, lactating vs. non-lactating, etc.).

If reductions in stocking rates are needed, begin by culling the open cows, or dry spring and summer ewes. If numbers need to be reduced further, follow by culling lactating females in poor body condition(they probably won't re-breed anyway). Other feed management tips include:

• Buy and store feed in bulk if at all possible. This is a good practice even in non-drought situations since it ultimately helps reduce your cost. Bagging can add $25 to $30 per ton to the cost of your feed or supplement. You can also sometimes trim a few dollars by forward contracting. For this you will need to plan your program out farther into the future so you know how much you are considering feeding. Your initial costs as related to the current market might be higher but over the contract period, during the winter months, you will probably come out ahead as time goes on and feed prices increase.

• Feed protein supplements less often. Supplements high in natural protein may be fed as infrequently as twice or even once per week. Conversely, feed high-energy supplements daily to avoid chances of acidosis.

• Use a good, complete, palatable free-choice mineral. Use of an injectable trace mineral, can be effective in these situations in addition to the fed mineral supplement. A product such as MultiMinTM helps insure the delivery of trace elements critical to reproduction, growth and immune function during these stressful periods.

• Inject vitamin A or provide it in frequently fed supplements if it has been more than 3 to 4 months since the diet has included any green forage.

In many situations, supplementation strategies are just a best guess, unless something is known about diet quality in relation to animal requirements. A lot of that guesswork can be removed by using some of the previously discussed technologies that predict pasture diet quality. Knowing diet quality can help you evaluate supplements for their biological benefits to the animal. Livestock and feed prices will tell you if that answer is economically feasible.

A Real Life Example

In 2005, Cole Farms, located in NW Louisiana faced the question of how to deal with a drought situation that left them short of hay for their ~1200 head of breeding cows. The answer they came up with involved a combination of steps that they believed would help them “weather” the conditions and the fall, winter and spring season. Initially, owner Jeff Cole and manager Christian Cook made the difficult decision to cull as much as 30 percent of the herd. Any cows that were of questionable production history not longer had a home on the ranch. This reduced the herd size by about 300 head thus reducing the demand.

Next, Cook, working with ABC Nutrition Services, Inc. out of Shreveport, La. and Sulphur Springs, Texas, redesigned his feeding and supplementation program. The ranch had some hay, about 40-50 percent of what was needed. The decision was made that hay would be fed every other or every second day with a high fiber, bulky supplemental feed fed on alternate days that would meet energy and other nutrient requirements. Additionally, Cole Farms kept available, 100 percent of the time, a balanced mineral supplement developed for them by ABC. Christian Cook is a stickler for mineral supplementation. “If I have to choose how I will spend supplementation dollars, the mineral program comes first. It is the foundation of our nutritional program. At any given point in time, Cook can tell you what the average mineral consumption is on the ranch to 1/100 of a lb. “It's just too important to ignore,” says Cook. “We changed over to ABC's mineral program a few years ago. We reduced cost and saw our conception rates increase. We changed nothing else during this time,” points out Cook, who reports conception to weaning rates in the mid-90 percent. For a ranch this size, that's significant.

When the decision was made to change how the overall hay and feeding program would be managed, initially there was a concern about the higher overall feeding cost but once analyzed and compared to feeding normal levels of hay along with necessary winter supplementation it was determined that the added cost amounted to an average of $.20 per head per day or about $36 per head per year. This looks like a considerable amount of money until the results are considered.

“Our cows came out of the winter in better condition than ever,” states Cook. “We also got more cattle bred the first time around and sooner.” One of the most important factors was revealed when calves were weaned. “Our average weaning weight was 50 lbs. higher, even after a drought year. Given what the cattle markets have been this results in a pretty nice profit for us at this point.” Cole Farms retains ownership through the feedyards. With the quality of their cattle and the management and nutrition applied before the cattle ever enter the yard, Cole's closeouts are typically the envy of many cattle feeders even in a tough economy.

Conclusions

The guidelines given and the example seen by this Louisiana ranch show the producer that drought periods are not necessarily a time for despair. Periods such as these can help producers become more efficient and actually learn to be better managers in the long run. Many of the lessons learned during these periods can be applied under more favorable circumstances.

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional 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 sblez@verizon.net. For more information please visit www.blnconsult.com.

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