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Drylotting Cows as a Drought Management Strategy

July 12, 2016

Drought Conditions: Management challenges
Matching livestock inventories with available forage becomes the primary management challenge during drought conditions. Some decisions are fairly straightforward, such as marketing yearling cattle early or culling cows that might be old, open, or ornery.

If drought becomes severe enough that productive cows must be removed from pastures, making the best decision becomes much more complex. Culling solves the problem of not enough forage, but at a cost to the long-run financial health of the ranch. All the fixed overhead costs such as family living or labor expense, loan obligations, or long-term lease expenses remain, only with fewer calves to sell. Replacing the culled cows almost always costs more money than their value as culls, especially if large numbers of cows are being shipped.

Management Strategy: Feeding pairs in a drylot setting
Feeding pairs in a drylot setting is one alternative management strategy that may be worth considering. Drylotting allows ranchers to hold on to productive cows until it rains again and pasture conditions improve. Drylotting also facilitates early weaning, which saves additional feed.

Research data from a number of universities shows that cow-calf pairs do well on a wide variety of diets, either by limit feeding or by allowing unlimited access to feed. Table 1 provides examples of diets used by North Dakota State University and by the University of Nebraska. These diets rely on relatively cheap sources of roughage combined with grain or by-product feeds.


Other Drylotting Considerations
Other considerations for feeding pairs in a drylot include:

  • Minimize hay waste with ad-lib feeding.
  • Manage bunks carefully to prevent acidosis or other digestive upsets when limit feeding.
  • Provide sufficient bunk space for both the cow and her calf, as much as 3 to 4 feet per pair.
  • Manage pens to reduce fly pressure and the incidence of mud.
  • Providing shade may be beneficial in reducing heat stress in the calves.
  • If newly purchased cattle are brought into the yard, keep pairs isolated to avoid respiratory disease.

The market for feedstuffs is a bright spot comparing this year with 2012. Feed grains and forages are considerably cheaper now than four years ago improving the feasibility of alternative strategies such as drylotting. Ultimately, the right answer for one ranch may be quite different from another depending upon facilities, finances, and other considerations.

More detailed information about drought management can be found in Drought Management Tips for Beef Cattle Producers.

Source: Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University