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Feeding, Culling Are Main Drought Considerations

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Updated February 2018

When you live in Oklahoma or Texas, drought management should never be far from your mind. The two main considerations for cattle producers in times of drought are drought feeding management and culling strategies.

Drought Feeding Management

  • High nitrate levels are a significant concern when any forage is subjected to stress such as lack of moisture, heat or a freeze, especially sorghum-type hay. A nitrate test should performed before feeding these hays..
  • Prussic acid accumulation can be a problem in grazing drought-stunted plants such as Johnson grass and sorghum/sudan varieties. If forage for hay is allowed to cure thoroughly until any bright green color is gone (typically at least seven days), prussic acid should not be a problem.
  • Utilize an energy-based supplement when forage is limited and make sure the protein is of an all-natural source. When supplements containing urea are used by cattle in a forage-limited situation, urea toxicity can occur.
  • Cattle grazing short pasture are more likely to consume toxic plants.
  • Be aware of the potential for disease. In times of drought, hay is harvested anywhere there is standing forage, including roadsides, abandoned pastures, etc. The likelihood of the hay containing metal objects such as cans, wire or other objects is greater than in normal years. These foreign objects can pierce the rumen wall resulting in the death of the animal and a condition known as hardware disease. Additionally, other diseases such as the Clostridials and Leptospirosis can become problematic.

Culling Strategies

One of the hardest management decisions for most producers to make is to cull potentially productive cows. However, to ensure the long-term viability of the operation, culling may be a necessary decision during drought years. Therefore, utilize a systems approach to make this decision.

  • Cull any cow that doesn’t have a calf at her side. If a cow calved during the previous calving season and lost a calf, sell her regardless of age or pregnancy status. Additionally, cull any virgin heifers. These heifers will have the highest nutritional requirements over the next two years, rebreed at the lowest rate and wean the lightest calves. Additionally, they will have one of the best returns on investment at this stage.
  • Accurately assess the status of your remaining herd. This should be done by determining pregnancy status of cows and evaluating the physical condition of each individual cow (feet and legs, teeth, udders, etc). Cull the cows in this order: any cow physically unable to produce at the average level of the herd, any open cow and any short bred cows (relative to the rest of the cow herd). Remember, this is not an all or none situation. Remove the identified cows in the above order until the remaining cow herd can be supported with available forage, hay, leased land or supplemental feed.
  • If you have culled the previously identified cattle and are still facing a forage deficit situation, the situation becomes tougher. Attempt to identify those cattle that have the highest likelihood of producing above average calves for the next few years. A sound record keeping system will greatly simplify this activity. Without adequate records, this may require a crystal ball to predict accurately, but producers can use body condition score as a good estimator. Cull any extremely thin (body condition score 3 and under) cows of any age, then cull any thin to moderately thin (body condition score  4 and under) younger and older cows.
  • Culling the herd further is akin to pulling teeth. However, in some extreme situations, it must be done. Cull all 8-year-old and older cows, and any cow younger than four years of age. This will leave you with the core of your productive cowherd to try to survive the drought.

We all hope that rainfall will be adequate and will not need to implement any of these management strategies. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict when the area will see a drought. It never hurts to be prepared to make the hard decisions ... Just in case.

Billy Cook, Ph.D.
Former Director of Ag Systems Research & Technology