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 the last couple in many areas, producers had to purchase everything,
hay or other forages, supplements, feeds. They had very little supply of what
they normally fed that was grown on the farm. In drought situations however such
as these, they 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).
If the drought continues or worsens, they will also need to decide when to stop
supplementing and start selling livestock.
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
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
efficiency of feed conversion. 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 wheat
midds, 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 1000 lb. dry cow requires a minimum of seven 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 $280 per ton, it costs
$0.37 to provide a pound of protein. The 20 percent cube provides 400 pounds
of actual protein per ton of bulk feed; at $21 per ton, it costs $0.53 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,
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. This is a good practice even in non-drought situations
since it ultimately helps reduce your cost. Bagging can add $25.00 to $30.00
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.
• 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 1:1 calcium-to-phosphorus mineral. Use of
an injectable trace mineral (ITM), 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 three to four 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 mush 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 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 2nd 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 $36.00 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 a cattle feeder.
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 email@example.com.