By Harold Harpster
Even if you're fortunate enough to farm in one of those small "normal rainfall" areas of the U.S. Drought Monitor map, you can't escape the effects of high feed prices. While there are no easy answers, here are 13 management strategies that take on extra importance during severe drought:
- Forget "starving a profit": No reputable producer would starve his animals. But with high feed prices, there's always a temptation to underfeed to the point that animal performance – and the bottom line – are hurt. As cows lose condition, they become poorly equipped to deal with the coming winter when their nutrient requirements increase in late gestation. And with a body condition score of 4 or under, they'll likely be slow to return to heat after calving.
- Cull ruthlessly: Expensive feeds must be used for cattle that are doing the job! This isn't the time to give that open cow or problem cow another chance!
- Realistically assess pasture potential: Cool season pastures typically rebound as temperatures start to cool in the fall – assuming moisture's available. Take a hard reading of fall pasture status to determine what else must be done to provide enough feed for your herd.
- Sell best feed, replace it with cheaper options: If you were lucky enough to make some high-quality forages or had good grain yields, consider cashing out a portion of it and feeding something cheaper to the beef herd. Stalks, straws and byproducts often have enough feed value to nourish a brood cow, particularly mature cows.
- Buy needed feed now: Don't procrastinate, thinking that "things will get better any day now." Since the majority of producers will follow that path, feed prices will likely rise as the year progresses. Act now and beat the rush. Several state "hay hotlines" are already seeing markedly increased use.
- Control parasites: External and internal parasites compete with your cattle for expensive nutrients. Health programs are a poor place to cut costs during drought stress.
- Consider creep feeding: Yes, grain creeps are expensive. But they'll boost calf weaning weight and take some pressure off the milking cow.
- Consider early weaning: Weaning spring-born calves early will help reduce a cow's nutritional demands. It's often cheaper to feed a cow and calf separately than it is to feed the cow, which then must feed her calf.
- Rent more land: It's probably a long shot, but ask around. There may be some underutilized land nearby that could help you through this period.
- Don't let minor nutrients slip: Minerals and vitamins are only minor in that only small amounts are needed in the ration. They're critical to good performance. Keep a good free-choice mineral-vitamin mix available at all times.
- Group cows by need: It's always a good management approach – just more so when feeds are scarce and/or expensive. "Feeding to nutrient requirements" isn't possible unless the herd is fed separately by production group: mature cows, two-year-olds, dry cows, replacement heifers, herd bulls.
- Supplement forages wisely: Explore options beyond traditional supplements. Have you pushed the pencil on range cubes, liquid feeds, grain byproducts and others?
- Try creative complementarity: Here's one example: In the late 1980s, Pennsylvania farmers chopped almost-earless drought-damaged corn and mixed in potato processing slurry from a cannery as it exited forage wagons. It added enough moisture and energy for normal silage fermentation. Cattle liked it, and performed similarly to normal corn silage. Another option would be adding 30% wet distiller's grains to 70% cornstalk residues or about 60 pounds of anhydrous ammonia per ton of stalks or straw to raise energy and protein equivalent values plus significantly improve fiber digestion.
Harpster is a newly retired Penn State University animal scientist and a beef producer.