Widespread drought is making beef producers look differently at their operations this year. Here are some tips where your veterinarian can assist you.
Make a plan. The first step in a drought plan is to inventory your feed supply and your herd. If you’re short of feed, some important decisions will need to be made. This isn’t the time to panic. I’ve already heard of instances where the owner has sold half the cowherd. What will this short-term decision do to the long-term goals of the beef business?
Pregnancy check all cows 45 days after the bull comes out. If a pregnancy exam costs $6/cow (DVM fee and owner labor) and hay costs $200/ton, it takes only one open cow in a herd of 100 cows to make this effort pay. Five open cows will eat $3,000 worth of hay and produce nothing.
Use cow production records to make culling decisions. For those producers who have kept good production records over the years, those records can really pay off in a drought situation, as you can select from the bottom of your herd to cull. Then when it comes time to re-build the herd, you are using your best genetics.
Limit feed cows. If you give cows 24/7 access to hay, they will waste 30-40% of it, according to Purdue research. With average-quality hay, a cow in body condition score (BCS) 5.5 will hold her condition with only 4-6 hours/day access to hay. Simply put a hot wire around the hay feeding area and allow them limited access. Monitor BCS and adjust as needed. Full feeding hay is nearly always the most expensive way to feed a cow.
Does your old bull need replacing? If your herd bull weighs 2,000 lbs., he’ll eat 40-60 lbs. of hay/day this winter. Feeding 150 days equals $600-900 of winter feed. It may be smarter to sell him now and upgrade next spring.
Wean calves earlier. If you typically wean calves at 180 days or older, this would be a great year to wean at 120-150 days. It’s much more economical to feed the calf directly rather than feeding the cow to feed the calf.
Don’t sell lightweight calves if at all possible. Even though the price/cwt. on lightweight calves is high (currently 350-lb. steers at $165/cwt.), selling a calf at $577.50 will likely not pay the cow’s yearly cost. If calves are light at weaning, it’s best to background them and sell at a more profitable weight. Your herd health veterinarian, Extension educator or nutritionist can help you formulate a cost-effective ration for these calves.
Resist the temptation to buy expensive feedstuffs. At $300/ton, 88% dry matter (DM) and 60% total digestible nutrients (TDN), alfalfa hay costs $568/ton of DM TDN. Cornstalk bales at $100/ton, 75% DM and 50% TDN cost only $267/ton of DM TDN. There are numerous blocks, licks, tubs and mixes that are over $1,000/ton of DM TDN.
Don’t spend too much for energy (or protein). Compare prices on a nutrient basis before you buy. I developed a spreadsheet that you can use to figure prices. Go to www.mwbeefcattle.com and click on “spreadsheets.” All the instructions are on the website.
Think outside the box. I’ve seen producers purchase byproduct feeds for the cowherd, drought-stressed corn for silage (test for nitrates before feeding), and move cows to neighbors’ cornstalk fields for grazing (a huge resource in the Corn Belt). Talk to neighbors who don’t have cattle about grazing their crop aftermath.
We have numerous clients who graze dry cows on cornstalks for 60 days. If you have 100 cows and hay costs $4/cow/day, you will spend $24,000 to feed the herd for 60 days. Putting up some electric fence on the neighbor’s field costs much less than that.
W. Mark Hilton, DVM, is a clinical professorof beef production medicine at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.