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8 steps to cow herd survival

Gene Johnston 01/14/2013 @ 9:15am On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

Beef producers get the double whammy in a drought. Not only is herd productivity diminished, but also the cost of the single biggest input – feed – spikes. Feed makes up 60% to 70% of total costs on a cattle ranch.

Don't give in. Here are eight tips for survival from University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist Shawn Deering.

1. Preg-check and cull ruthlessly. You can never really afford to waste a whole year of feed on an open cow. With limited and expensive hay, it makes even less sense. “Cull the old cows, the late calvers, and the bad udders,” says Deering. Take a hard look at the off cows – those that don't fit because of color or breed. Cull early rather than late, he says. “If you suspect other producers are going to cull, beat the rush and maybe hit a better market.”

2. Split into feeding groups. Give your cows a body condition score: thin, normal, or fat. Feed by groups accordingly to stretch hay supplies. “Young cows may need a little extra nutrition because they are still growing,” says Deering. “Put them with older, thin cows.”

3. Wean early. This will take some stress off the cows and may help rebreeding performance. It keeps cows from getting run down during a grass slump. “Calves weaned at 60 to 90 days old are pretty efficient converters of feed,” says Deering. “Their rumens are fully functioning, and they can handle forage.”

4. Creep-feed calves. It's long been debated whether this pays. Deering says if there's ever a time for it, it's in a drought when cows aren't milking well. Research says calves prefer milk, creep feed, and forage, in that order. “Some ranchers are successful with a system of creep grazing,” says Deering. “They set the fence higher to allow calves under it and into an ungrazed paddock to get the very best forage before the cows get there.”

5. Limit-feed cows. This, too, may have a place in drought. Cows and calves are fenced in a dry lot, and the exact amount of feed they need is brought to them. Corn or by-products can be mixed with forage to make a high-energy, nutrient-dense ration, says Deering. They get just what they need in a smaller quantity of feed. “It takes more management skills and attention to detail than grazing,” says Deering. Limit-fed cows are always hungry for more, so you may be tempted to overfeed.

6. Be creative with forages. Rotational grazing is one part of this. At its best, it has potential to double the carrying capacity of some pastures, Deering says. He also says you can consider seeding annual small grains (such as triticale, wheat, or oats) late this winter or next spring to produce a spring forage for grazing or baling. You can also seed summer annual grasses like sorghum Sudan. It can be available in six to eight weeks.

7. Go alternative. Ethanol by-products such as dried distillers' grains can complement low-quality forages. Deering suggests you spend $20 and have your forage tested for protein and other nutrients. “If all you need is additional protein, then you can price a supplement on a protein basis, not on something you don't need.” Cornstalks are not great feed, but “may be at least as high in nutrient value as low-quality hay,” he says.

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