Updated February 2018
As if not having adequate good-quality water for cow herds isn't bad enough, there is little to no available standing forage going into winter at a time of record-high hay prices in a drought management situation. After paring down the cow herd to a manageable number to over-winter, it's time to begin thinking about hay and feed resources.
Before considering feeding strategies, assess your winter hay requirements by determining how much standing forage is left, how long that forage will last your reduced-size cow herd and how much hay you have on hand. A good rule of thumb for hay requirements is each cow requires about one large round bale for each month she needs the supplemental feed. Multiply the number of cows by the number of months of feeding hay to determine your total hay requirement. Considering the severity of the drought, you may not have enough standing forage or hay to get through to spring green-up.
If you will be short on hay, there are several feeding strategy decisions to make. Possibilities include purchasing more hay to feed cows as needed, limit feeding the hay only (if it is high-quality), limit feeding hay and feed supplements, or feed in a dry-lot with supplements. Knowing the quality and cost of hay, and the price of locally available feedstuffs, you can determine which method is most cost effective. Remember, not every ranch will be alike, and what works for your neighbor may not work for you.
You must supply the cow with enough protein and energy to meet her requirements. Refer to Table 1 to determine the amount of dry matter intake (DMI), total digestible nutrients (TDI) and crude protein (CP) the cow must have. This table assumes the cow is in adequate body condition score (BCS) and does not have to gain weight prior to calving. I have calculated the pounds of each nutrient the cow must have when considering a limit-fed diet. In this case, the DMI may not be met, but TDI and CP will be met. If your cows are below BCS 5, you will have to increase the amount of feed and nutrients required in the table.
With high hay prices, you may consider substitute and limit-feed a byproduct or grain-based diet in a sacrifice area of your pasture to the cow herd. Several previous Ag News and Views articles have covered limit feeding of hay and corn, feeding hay and cubes and byproduct feeds.
I encourage you to contact a Noble livestock specialist to fully explore all options.