Feeding Cattle in a Drought

Drought Feeding Management- Jessica Rymel, Cass County AgriLife Extension Agent

Where pasture is still plentiful but low in quality the following suggestions are made concerning supplementation for cattle. Cost is going to be a limiting factor as hay prices rise, but producers will have to utilize all options in order to maintain the herd numbers to remain in production.

First, providing a good mineral supplement is crucial to maintaining forage intake and effective utilization. This mineral needs to be a complete supplement with a composition containing 10-20% salt, 12% calcium, 12% phosphorus, 5% magnesium, 0.9% zinc, and 0.2% copper, which has worked well in drought conditions. When adding feed to supplement diet, you want to feed your dry cows as much as 1-2 pounds each per day and lactating cows will need 2-3 pounds to maintain forage intake and efficient utilization of the forage as well as the energy coming off the cows back as weight loss. Oil meal supplements such as cottonseed meal, protein blocks, and liquid supplements are appropriate for this. If only dry, dormant forage is available for more than 100 to 200 days consecutively you need to consider supplementing with vitamin A, as cattle will be unable to get the recommended amount from their forage.

When pasture is scarce and low in quality, purchasing hay is going to be necessary as, range cubes will only be an effective solution for a little while, and will not be a cost effective solution if fed solely for a long period of time. When choosing a range cube, cubes with a large amount of natural protein and a crude fiber level of less than 10% will be preferred. When analyzing the options of replacement feeds, producers must keep in mind that most grass hay has 50-65% of the energy content of grain, so feeding one pound of grain can replace 1.5 to 2.0 pounds of hay, unless it is alfalfa. Because of this, it simply won’t make sense for producers to pay $105 per ton when the cost of grain would only be a little more, but have more energy content. Where hay is scarce, give ammoniated wheat straw a try. Ammoniation of straw with 60 pounds of anhydrous ammonia per ton of straw will increase cattle performance and make it possible to utilize wheat straw as the only roughage in the diet, something not recommended for untreated straw. Ammoniation does not make wheat straw a complete feed. A good mineral supplement will be essential and supplementation with 1-2 pounds of natural preformed protein is advisable along with the non-protein nitrogen added by ammoniation. Toxicity problems, involving calf losses and wild irrational cattle behavior, have been reported when ammoniating high quality forages such as sorghum sudan hybrids. The problem appears to be related to high available carbohydrate content and the reaction with ammonia to form toxic methylimidazoles. Imidazole formation and toxicity problems have not been observed with ammoniation of wheat straw or similar products. If you’re short of forage and wheat straw is available, give ammoniation a try. Stay alert for potential problems which might result because of drought conditions

Some types of cattle are going to naturally do better on a grain based diet. British cattle can be kept in maintenance with up to 80% of their diet being made up of grain. This ratio is not as feasible for cattle with Brahman influence. Even though cattle can subsist of limited forage, and  body condition can be maintained with grains, all cattle must be kept on an adequate amount of forage to minimise digestive problems.

The absence of proper nutrition will have a weight loss impact on cattle. When such weight losses occur, milk production decreases and reproductive activity may cease. The end result is light-weight calves and unbred cows. To prevent such undesirable effects, cows either must be provided sufficient nutrients to avoid weight losses and maintain production requirements or they must be relieved totally or partially from body stresses. Unavailability of feeds or their unusually high cost often prohibits feeding lactating cows the nutrients necessary for lactation and rebreeding. Production requirements of the mature cow for which nutrients are needed include body maintenance, lactation and rebreeding. First-calf heifers and young cows must have additional nutrients for growth. To reduce stress and lessen the total feed necessary, the only production requirement that can be removed is lactation. Lactation stress may be removed from cows or heifers by weaning calves after 60 to 80 days of age, or partially removed by creep feeding and holding the calf off the cow for part of the day. In so doing, nutrient requirements are lessened and reproductive activity is more likely to commence or be maintained.

When feeding during a drought, there are several issues that can create serious health issues for your herd. The use of salt to limit feed intake may increase water intake 50 to 75% or approximately 50 gallons of additional water for each pound of salt. Water must not be limited in any way or salt toxicity may result. The over-consumption of urea-containing supplements by cattle on forage scarce ranges can result in urea toxicity. Generally, cattle performance on urea-type supplements is also poor whenever energy or forage is in short supply as the non protein nitrogen must have cellulose containing material to be effectively utilized. Hay cut under moisture stress conditions, especially sorghum type hays, may contain high levels of nitrate. If in doubt, it would be good to test for nitrate before feeding such hays, especially before feeding large amounts. Producers who cut drought corn or sorghum for hay are enouraged to check nitrate levels before feeding. Be sure to take a good representative sample when sending to the laboratory for analysis. In addition, prussic acid or cyanide poisoning can also be a problem in grazing drought stunted plants such as Johnson grass, sorghum, sorghum hybrids, and sudan grass. If forage for hay is allowed to sun cure thoroughly for three to five days, bleaching out any bright green color, prussic acid should not be a problem. Cattle grazing short pasture are more likely to consume toxic plants. High energy acid-producing feeds tend to decrease rumen pH and fiber digestion and alternate day feeding of large amounts, more than four pounds, simply magnifies the decrease in rumen pH. Further, unadapted cows should be started on grain feeding slowly or the problems of acidosis, founder and even death may result. Rumen impaction may result where cattle receive inadequate protein (less than 7 to 8% CP in total diet) and too much of a low quality high fiber forage such as drought pasture. Lack of adequate water will aggravate the impaction program.Hay harvested from vacant city lots, roadsides etc., broiler litter and other such feed may contain nails, wire, or foreign objects which can pierce the rumen wall resulting in death of the animal. When roughage supply is limited it may also be necessary  to ensure complete consumption of coarse stems, moldy portions, etc. Grinding prevents selective consumption and helps to mix and thus dilute portions of the ration which by themselves are unpalatable or possibly toxic. Grinding does not in itself make the feed any more nutritious; in fact it reduces the digestibility of the feed slightly, but because animals can consume more, a larger proportion of the feed intake is available for production, and a smaller proportion is used for maintenance. When using high levels of poor-quality roughage in the diet, proper supplementation is essential to avoid impaction. Since many livestock procedures will be using unfamiliar feeds or rations during periods of feed shortage, they should keep a close watch over animal performance and adjust rations as necessary to meet production requirements.

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