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Avoid drought's 'tail' in your herd

The corn and soybean crops are hogging much of the spotlight when it comes to growing damage from the drought conditions around the nation this summer. But, it's the beef sector that could see the longest-lasting effects of the hot, dry weather.

In fact, producers who fail to "properly manage" their herd through the drought could be dealing with its effects for as long as 3 years, one Purdue University Extension beef specialist says.

"The tail on this can be pretty long if we don't manage things right in a drought year," says Ron Lemenager. "One thing that I think is really important for producers to consider this year is body condition. If you use condition scores of these cows as a barometer of where you're at nutritionally, we can't do much about the heat or drought, but we can make sure we don't have any nutritional deficiencies."

So, what if you do finish the year with poor body scores for your cows because of poor or altogether lacking forage stocks this summer on account of the drought? Embryo survival goes down, sperm and oocyte quality declines and overall fertilization rates go down.

"The environmental conditions we are experiencing have ratcheted stress forward into the heart of the breeding season for those that calve in the spring, meaning it's very probably we'll see more open cows than normal this fall," Lemenager says in a university report.

If you're in a droughted area and have doubts about how your herd's faring, be sure to preg-check your cows and consider marketing non-productive animals. And, consider the implications of keeping back all your pregnant cows. They may be able to calve okay, but the drought's likely been hard enough on them to make it tough to keep a young calf healthy.

"If we're short on forage we have the option of sliding by, but if cows are thin going into the fall, fewer will be bred, calves will be lighter at weaning time this year and fewer calves will be born next year," Lemenager says. "Then, if cows are thin heading into next breeding season, fewer cows will be bred and colostrum quality will be lower, meaning a lower calf survival rate which affects productivity in years 2 and 3."

Avoiding that 3-year "tail" can be best done by supplementing feed as early as you can to ensure your cows' health doesn't slide too much. And, Purdue Extension forage specialist Keith Johnson advises the following steps to help your cows manage heat and drought stress:

  • Avoid overgrazing and employ rotational grazing.
  • Creep-feed calves to create near normal weaning weights.
  • Early-wean calves to take pressure off of both cows and pastures.
  • Identify and manage poisonous plants in pastures and hay fields.
  • Establish summer annuals to increase late-season forage production.
  • Pregnancy-check and market cull cows earlier than normal to reduce feed needs.
  • Inventory hay and other feed resources.
  • Analyze feeds for nutrient profiles to help determine supplemental feed needs.
  • Use alternative feeds to supplement and stretch forage supplies.
  • Limit hay access time to stretch forage supplies.
  • Limit-feed a high-concentrate diet to stretch forage supplies.
  • Graze crop residues and stockpiled forages to reduce harvested feed needs.
  • Use drought-stressed corn for grazing, green chop or silage.
  • Make sure cattle have access to a clean, cool water supply.
  • Moisten the soil around ground rods of electric fences.

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