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NDSU Extension Offers Ways to Reduce Grazing Pressure

September 6, 2018

Some North Dakota cattle producers may be running short of good-quality forage.

“If forage quality or quantity is lacking at this time of year, producers have several options to reduce grazing pressure and nutritional stress in the cow herd,” says Janna Kincheloe, Extension livestock systems specialist at North Dakota State University’s Hettinger Research Extension Center. “Supplementing or substituting forage, creep feeding and/or early weaning calves, and culling are strategies to be considered.”

Supplementation Issues

Depending on forage conditions, supplementation may be necessary to ensure adequate cow performance and milk production. Ideally, supplementation strategies for an individual operation should be developed based on costs, nutrient requirements of the cow (cow size, stage of production, etc.), and available forage quality and quantity, according to Karl Hoppe, Extension livestock systems specialist at the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center.

Even if forage is widely available, the protein in mature, dry grass can be limited.

“In this case, high-quality protein supplements such as legumes, oilseeds or byproduct feeds such as distillers grains can ensure that protein is adequate in the rumen, thereby increasing overall available energy to the cow,” Hoppe says. “If protein is adequate but forage availability is limited, an energy supplement is probably the best option.”

Starchy energy supplements such as grain can reduce forage digestibility and utilization. However, producers can substitute these feeds for a portion of the forage in times of forage shortages. Fiber-based supplements such as wheat midds, soyhulls and byproduct feeds will provide additional energy without negative impacts on forage digestibility.

In situations where forage availability and quality are low, a 20 to 30 percent protein supplement that also is high in energy (such as alfalfa hay or distillers grains) is preferred.

Grazing Strategies

NDSU Extension livestock systems specialist John Dhuyvetter suggests that producers may need to consider an alternative grazing strategy using crop residue, warm-season annuals or hay land, depending on pasture conditions. Drylot feeding also may be a viable option in some cases. Check out the NDSU Extension publication “Drylot Beef Cow-Calf Production” ( for more information on drylot cow-calf production options.

Dhuyvetter recommends that producers sample forages and have them tested for quality, and then work with their local Extension agent or specialist to develop a supplementation strategy.

Creep Feeding

When forage quality and availability are limited or milk production is poor, creep feeding is a management strategy that can increase calf weight gains and weaning weights.

“If high-quality pasture and milk are available, calves probably already are gaining to their genetic capacity, and creep typically will not result in added benefits,” Hoppe says. “Calves still prefer milk to creep feed; therefore, creep feeding will not reduce milk consumption. However, it may reduce forage consumption by calves.”

Some research indicates that feeding creep feed to potential replacement heifers may reduce their milking ability as cows by increasing fat deposition and impacting tissue development in the udder. If heifers are receiving creep feed, producers should limit the intake of creep feed with salt or use high-fiber feeds such as oats, roughage products, soyhulls or wheat midds to keep calves from getting too fat. These feeds also will minimize the risk of digestive disorders such as bloat and acidosis.

Generally, creep feeds should contain between 14 and 16 percent crude protein, and will be most palatable if using a simple mixture of at least two feeds and molasses. Feed efficiency and responses to creep feeding often are variable, so considering the cost of added gain and potential returns based on predicted calf prices is important.

Early Weaning

“If forage conditions are such that cow performance is being compromised, early weaning is one of the best ways to reduce nutrient requirements and help thin cows increase condition,” Dhuyvetter says.

Respiratory disease can become an issue quickly during hot, dry weather on dusty pastures. Weaning calves early and managing them in lots where they can be observed closely and treated for diseases if necessary may provide a health benefit. In addition, younger calves are highly efficient and able to take advantage of a higher plane of nutrition.

Most research shows that early weaned calves should be retained for a period of time after weaning to maximize profitability. Early weaned calves offer flexibility because they can go back to grass or be placed in a backgrounding or accelerated feeding program.


Strategic culling often is a good option if forage is limited. Cows that are unsound, are poor mothers or have a bad disposition, and those with bad teats, legs or feet are good candidates for culling.

Calves from cows that are slated to be culled could be weaned early and the cow could be sold. Producers also could consider keeping a smaller number of replacement heifers than normal if higher-quality feed is not available to develop them properly.

“Determining the best strategy or combination of strategies during times of limited forage availability or quality begins with taking an objective look at the individual operation,” Kincheloe says.

These are some questions to consider:

  • What are the pasture conditions?
  • What are your options?
  • In what stage of production is your cow herd?
  • What kind of facilities and management are available?
  • How do potential options work into your risk management and marketing plans?

Source: NDSU Extension