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Drought management for Minnesota beef producers

Brown beef cow.

Pastures and hayfields are not in good shape, and they are getting worse by the day. At this point, it is a good idea for beef cattle operations to start planning for the likely possibility of running out of summer grass. We are past the point in the growing season where additional rain is going to restore things to normal for this year.

The key to successful drought management lies in executing your plan before the situation becomes absolutely critical. Here are few considerations for managing your herd in these conditions.

Surface water 

In many areas, surface water is the main source of water for grazing cattle. In most instances that we have observed, small bodies of surface water are dried up or nearly dried up, which creates several major problems. Firstly and obviously, as water holes start to dry up, cattle have nothing to drink. This, of course, can be remedied if a live water tap is close by to fill tanks. 

If a live water tap is not available, moving cattle out of the pasture or hauling water may be your only alternatives for the short-term. Before you make that decision, remember a cow will drink 20 gallons and calves 5 to 8 gallons per day. That is a lot of water to haul, and you can’t let them run out, or you risk calves getting trampled if you start dumping fresh water at tanks after a couple of days without water. If you are going to haul water, start hauling well in advance of natural surface water running out so cows have a chance to establish their new pecking order before it becomes a dire situation. 

Remember that cows will continue to return to an old pond even after it is dried up, which is generally disastrous for calves who become bogged in the silt at the bottom of the pond bed. Once the new water supply is established, fence out the old water with a strand of hot wire to keep cattle out of the silt bed.

Creep feeding calves

Creep feeding calves could be a possible grass-saver for some outfits. Feed is expensive right now, but it may be the only option remaining before carving up the herd. Keeping calves on a low to moderate energy creep will reduce grass intake by as much as 20%. 

Culling cows

Selling cows is not something any rancher wants to do, especially mid-summer, yet here we are. Most cow outfits in Minnesota need to start thinking about trimming the need for grass right now. Rain will certainly help, but grass yields will still suffer tremendously, even with good rains. 

Thoughts about pruning the cow herd:

  1. Don’t wait till you’re out of grass. The cards have been dealt, and it’s time to play them. The majority of cow herds can be kept intact if 10 to 25% of the herd is liquidated now. If you have something else to feed them until fall that is fine, but most folks do not, and it probably isn’t very profitable to do so.
  2. If you bred early, you could pregnancy check early and sell opens and late breds. There is no reason to keep feeding the opens, and late calving cows are the least profitable in your herd.
  3. Sell the oldest cows first, even if they are still decent cows, they are the least valuable to your remaining cow herd. If you don’t have many older cows, cut into the older end of the running age cows (6 to 8 year olds) next. If you still need to trim, consider cutting into the replacement heifers. This will leave you a core group of your most valuable running age cows (3 to 6 year olds).
  4. It is unlikely that selling pairs or bred pairs is going to be much of a possibility this summer. Things may change, but this drought extends over 75% of cow country right now. Early weaning calves might be the way to go for many outfits. 

Early wean calves

Early weaning calves is an option some outfits may consider to lighten the load on remaining grass. This practice has been shown to reduce grass intake of cows by about 25%. Calves can be successfully weaned at about 90 days of age and started on feed relatively easily, particularly if they have been creep fed prior to weaning. Nutrition is the key component to a successful early-weaning program. Consult a nutritionist to formulate a least-cost ration specific to feed ingredients you have on hand. 

Other major considerations for early weaning include performing standard vaccinations prior to weaning, controlling dust to mitigate dust pneumonia potential, and adequate fly control. Hot weather has been a significant component of this drought, and heat stress should be managed appropriately to reduce stress in calves as much as possible. Focus on providing shade and plenty of clean water for calves. 

Although selling fly-weight calves right off the cow is an option, we don’t think it is going to be a very good option for most producers. Feeding them for a while will give you some flexibility to figure out a marketing strategy.

Pest control

Pest control is a key component of good management every year, but becomes even more important in drought years. Cows and calves are hounded relentlessly by biting flies, face flies, mosquitoes and ticks in a pasture setting, and dry weather tends to make it worse. Cattle use a lot of energy fighting flies, and tend to bunch which makes heat stress worse. Thus providing some relief from flies to cattle on grass or in drylots will help keep cattle more comfortable. Dust bags, oilers, rubs, and fly tags are all options for good pest control, provided they are kept fresh and current. 

Authors: Eric Mousel, Extension educator and Joe Armstrong, DVM and Extension educator

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