Drought planning considerations for cattle in Colorado

Drought is part of the normal production cycle in Colorado and integrating it into the overall management plan can help prevent financial losses, reduce stress associated with it, and lessen impacts to the health of the herd and land.

In the face of drought, producers may sell livestock to decrease herd size and grazing pressure, but alternative feeding strategies are an option for the remaining population.

When deciding on an alternative feeding program, there are several options to consider. The goal is to re-breed cows while maintaining calving intervals, maintain pounds of calf produced per cow, and minimize feed cost per pound of calf sold.

Substitute 1 pound of grain or other concentrate feeds for 2 pounds of alfalfa hay or 3 pounds of grass hay. Do not exceed grain feeding beyond 0.4 percent of the live body weight when forage is the major component of the diet. Grain is not always practical to feed, but there are ways to feed it even in pasture or in rangeland situations. Many producers use barrels, gated pipe split in half, bunks, or old hog feeders mounted on a trailer.

Relocating the cowherd into dry lots is a management alternative that may allow producers to take advantage of grains and byproduct feeds. Diets for dry lot cows are formulated to meet the nutrient requirements of the cows while minimizing feed costs. As a result, intake is generally limited, and more concentrate feeds are included to cheapen the diets.

Since intake on concentrate diets is restricted, cattle may appear gaunt and behave as though hungry. After 14 to 21 days, they will adapt to the reduced infeed intake, but they may continue to appear gaunt. Cattle should adapt to high-grain diets in seven to ten days and should be observed closely during that time. A minimal amount of roughage is required to maintain rumen function. Generally, cows should receive at least 0.5 percent of their body weight as roughage. So a 1,200-pound cow should receive at least 6 pounds of roughage per day.

In many cases, the best alternative for cow/calf producers is to feed a limit-fed, high grain diet in dry lot or semi-confinement. The most expensive nutrient for a cow is energy (TDN). The initial reaction of many people evaluating these diets is that cows will not survive on that small amount of feed, but it is important to keep in mind that grain is a concentrated energy source with10 pounds of grain supplying the energy equivalent of 15 to 20 pounds of hay.

Cows should be slowly adapted to high grain feeding, just like feedlot cattle. A suggested practice is to begin with 2 to 3 pounds of whole shelled corn per head, per day and free-choice roughage. Then, increase the grain by 1 pound per day, and reduce the hay by 2 pounds each day until the final ration is attained. Make sure plenty of bunk space is provided so all cows can
eat at the same time. Feed two times per day, if possible. Once the cows are switched over to the limit fed, grain-based ration, observe their body condition over time and adjust the grain as needed to maintain adequate condition.

Alternative feedstuffs used to decrease the dependency on alfalfa or grass hay include harvested corn stalks, millet hay, wheat straw, sorghum-sudan, cottonseed hulls, soybean hulls, wheat middlings, and corn gluten feed. Cottonseed hulls are low in protein (3.5 percent), but equal in energy to late cut grass hay. Cottonseed hulls should be fed with 2 to 3 pounds of 30
percent to 40 percent all-natural protein supplement and mineral. The crude protein in soybean hulls ranges from 10 percent to16 percent. Soybean hulls can be fed without additional forage, however, the digestible energy increases when fed with hay in a 2-to-1 ratio. Wheat middlings are a good source of protein (18 percent) and energy. It is best to mix at least 5 pounds of
forage with the wheat middlings. Corn gluten feed is a byproduct of the corn wet milling industry and is available in wet or dry form. It is high in protein (25 percent) and should be fed at a rate of 0.5 percent of body weight, with a forage source. A calcium-phosphorus mineral mixture and salt should always be available to cows, especially when utilizing any alternative feeds. Vitamin
A may need to be supplemented, also.

The economic viability of using alternative feeds is a key consideration. Hay prices average $200-240/ ton in western Colorado. Upon the onset of drought conditions, hay prices often increase and may become scarce. Keep an eye on local hay availability and prices at the first signs of drought. For example, if you learn of a cheaper alternative feed, consider the location of the feed source and the transportation costs to obtain the feed. If you produce high-quality hay, it may be financially viable for you to sell the high-quality hay at a premium price and purchase lower-quality hay to feed for extended periods. Feed prices and cattle prices fluctuate, and there is no one-size-fits all solution, but general considerations with regards to economics can help maintain financial sustainability and herd health in drought.

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