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Evaluate Winter Cow Management Following Drought

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Updated February 2018

Droughts are usually unpredictable but always have lasting effects on livestock operations. The following management practices will help you prepare for winter in a drought year.

Sell all open cows

Early identification and removal of open cows should be top priority. With scarce and costly pasture, feed and hay, it is not economical to maintain these females. A cow that does not produce a calf will not overcome the expenses accumulated during the year. You should also consider further culling, using a logical culling protocol. For more information, see Guidelines for Culling Cows.

Evaluate feeding programs and associated costs

Feed and hay prices typically increase during droughts. Table 1 shows the quantity of daily supplement required by a spring-calving cow when fed in combination with either low quality (LQ) or average quality (AQ) hay. LQ hay used in this example is assumed to test 5 percent crude protein. The AQ hay, 8 percent crude protein, is also evaluated and illustrates that substantial cost savings can result from knowing the nutritional value of your hay. Both hay types in this example are priced at $120 per ton. In this example, supplement is not needed when a cow is fed AQ hay. Whether considering hay for purchase or evaluating hay on hand, it is critical to analyze the hay for nutritive quality.

Table 1.

Supplements used in this example are 20 percent cubes (bagged), priced at $370 per ton, alfalfa hay priced at $240 per ton and a 50:50 blend of soybean hulls and bagged corn gluten feed (SBH/CGF) priced at $320 per ton. Be sure to check local availability and current feed prices in your area. There are many other commercial feeds and by-product blends that could be used. For more information on evaluating alternative feedstuffs, please see Managing Feed Costs.

With these calculated supplement rates and assumed costs, the SBH/CGF blend is the lowest cost option when fed in combination with LQ hay. Table 2 compares the 150-day wintering cost of this SBH/CGF supplement and LQ hay to the cost of AQ hay needing no supplement; the cost of full-time grazing winter pasture (WP); and the cost of limit-grazing WP with low-quality hay. Winter pasture costs are estimated to be $40 per ton of dry matter, assuming a per-acre establishment cost of $160 and a 4-ton forage yield.

Table 2.

Substitute winter pasture

The low costs of the two feeding programs using winter pasture show how drought has increased the cost of traditional dry matter sources, such as hay. Winter pasture is a very viable substitute for hay in the winter, but be alert for several problems that might arise. The first is bloat. The cost of bloat preventatives, such as poloxalene blocks, is not included in the estimated costs shown in Table 2. However, depending on winter pasture during drought is a very risky proposition as there is no guarantee the producer will get a forage stand that can be grazed in a timely fashion.

The second possible problem is the fact that non-lactating cows grazing winter pasture can consume five times more crude protein than they need on a total quantity basis. Often, a common symptom of this is dietary scours, especially when the forage is lush and actively growing. This problem may need to be addressed, but commonly subsides after several frosts have slowed plant growth and reduced moisture content. Allowing cows access to a roughage source, such as hay or standing grass, can also help this situation. Third, if cows are to be grazed on winter pasture through calving, a high magnesium mineral will be needed to prevent grass tetany. The cost per cow of full-time grazing winter pasture includes one round bale per cow ($50) and the additional cost of a high magnesium mineral ($22) for the 150-day season.

Reduce hay waste

A final management practice to stretch your dollar: if your winter feeding program involves hay, be sure to use some type of feeder to reduce hay waste. It is not uncommon to experience waste up to 50 percent when feeding round bales without hay rings or unrolling the bales. Using a hay feeder to minimize waste during feeding is recommended. Oklahoma State University found that the quantity of hay wasted can even depend on the type of hay ring used. For more information about this study, see Hay Feeder Design Can Reduce Hay Waste and Cost.

With high feed costs and scarce hay or pasture, it is imperative to evaluate all feeding options. If the fall weather cooperates, winter pasture can provide the much needed dry matter for the cow herd during winter months. In any case, only productive cows should be maintained through the winter. If you need more information to think through your options, call a Noble Research Institute consultant or your county Extension educator.

Winter Cow Management

Clay Wright
Former Technical Consultation Manager