Beef nutrition solutions when drought hurts forage

August 1, 2023
Nick Courville, an animal nutrition consultant with CHS, offers advice on stretching and supplementing forage during a drought.

Many cattle producers are dealing with tight forage supplies due to drought. Nick Courville, an animal nutrition consultant with CHS, shares cattle nutrition strategies to help maintain weight gain when feed supply is a concern.

Navigating limited forage

When forage supplies are tight, Courville suggests weaning early to give cows time to regain body condition beforeheading into winter.

“Abnormal weather requires abnormal management,” Courville says. “Each operation is unique, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. When appropriate, early weaning combined with the right supplements can stretch dry matter when pastures are short.”

Make the most of short pastures

Limited pasture regrowth can require changes to herd size and grazing plans, but knowing when to make those major decisions can be difficult.

“Start by setting benchmarks,” Courville advises. “If you haven’t had a certain amount of rain by a specific date, it may be time to consider liquidating some cattle. You can also make the most of existing pastures by using tubs, creep feeders or other supplements to entice cattle to graze areas they wouldn’t normally explore.”

Test hay for nutritional content

Hay harvested during a stretch of dry weather drought may provide health risks. Courville urges ranchers to test hay to identify issues such as high nitrate levels, which can adversely affect next year’s calf crop.

“Forage from stressed grasses tends to contain reduced vitamin and mineral content,” he explains. “Now is the time to test forage and fill any nutritional voids with supplements to help ensure optimal cow health through the winter.”

 He suggests paying particular attention to the amount of protein available to cattle.  

“When it’s hot and dry, pasture grass can become rank due to the extra cellulose it contains. Those grasses stand up a lot better and are harder for cattle to break down,” Courville explains. “Supplemental protein products like range cakes activate gut microbes, making it easier for cattle to break down the fibrous grasses that tend to dominate during drought.

“For producers with limited labor resources, molasses-based lick tubs can accomplish the same digestive effect without the need to put out a range cake every day or two,” he continues. “Anything producers can do to supplement their animals’ gut microbes will improve digestion and help make the most of limited pasture growth.”