PRODUCTION

Feeding and Caring for Livestock During a Drought


August 4, 2021

Severe drought conditions during the summer can affect many areas of the country, particularly the Western and Midwestern states. Overall, hotter summers, low rainfall, and reduced soil moisture has become more commonplace, making drought a major concern.

Farmers who care for livestock face unique challenges during these unforgiving conditions. Preparing for a drought with a livestock management plan can help farmers care for their animals when the water and food become scarce.

Two horses drinking water

Create a Drought Management Plan Before Disaster Strikes

Developing a comprehensive drought management plan requires managing the forage supply during these times of need.

Catching the signs of drought and managing livestock according to the changing conditions can help maintain profitability and preserve the integrity of your pastures.

Here are a few strategies to care for your animals during times of scarcity.

Readily Available Water

Heat stress is a major issue in severe drought conditions. Heat stress can cause a weakened immune system, decreased milk and meat production, and reduced body condition. Hotter temperatures can cause a significant rise in water intake requirements for your livestock.

Water sources are key in a drought so farmers should gain access to as many water sources as possible to prepare before the drought. Water sources can include water tanks, springs and seeps, ponds or reservoirs, irrigation ditches and rivers, and wells. Water supply can be brought in and stored as your last option when others are not available, but this requires increased handling time and transportation costs.

Drinking water should be placed in a shaded area to encourage hydration and provide shelter to your livestock from the dry and hot weather. It is also important the water source is the appropriate size for the herd.  A small stock tank may be fine for a few herds, but larger or multiple sources are suggested for bigger herds to prevent injury as animals fight for space to drink.

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Feed and Nutrition

Cows eating feed

During times of drought, feed costs can rise. If your local climate faces low to moderate drought conditions and you get some rain, you could plant supplemental forages for your livestock. These plants can be grown later in the season. If you do not have any supplemental plants, you can use failed crops as feed.

If your pastures are made up of cool-season grasses, the grazing lands may seem brown and dormant. During this time, they are saving their energy at the base of the plant (the crown) for cooler weather and regular watering later on. Planting new seeds during this time is not recommended since they cannot survive this condition.

We recommend that you do not graze these lands during a drought. First, if the animals remove the leaves from the little grass that exists, the pastures will have a harder time capturing sunlight for photosynthesis and regrow.

If the crown is removed, the energy storage for future growth is unavailable. In addition, removing the grass can expose your ground to weed growth and germination later in the year.

Grazing on these cool-season pasture grasses is not recommended since they can build up non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) such as sugars and fructans. These high levels can be harmful for horses. Even healthy horses can have some digestive issues since the forage has different nutritional composition during a drought.

In addition, plants can accumulate nitrates in a drought. They are not as harmful to horses compared to cattle or ruminants but if other high nitrate sources are given in water or other sources, animals can display signs of toxicity such as diarrhea and colic.

In times of need, livestock can turn to alternative foraging sources that may contain poisonous plants if there is not enough to graze in their area. Keep an eye on your livestock since they may eat nearby grazing lands if there is no fencing.

If necessary, you may need to gradually reduce the feed rations  while maintaining a healthy weight for your animal. If your animal begins to lose over 30 percent of its body weight, it is not likely to survive. We want to avoid this.

Horses are usually continuously moving as they graze and forage which can help their digestive health. However, when there is no green pasture, they wait in the shade for their feeding which can lead to gastrointestinal issues such as colic.

Due to this, it is recommended to feed horses grass hay to keep them busy during the day instead of waiting for an infrequent feeding. As the moisture comes back and the grass returns, it is critical to keep gradually introducing the pasture as they get used to the green grass again. A changed diet requires gradually re-introducing a new feed.

In the absence of green pasture, horses may graze on the limited shoots and roots available and ingest sand. Too much of it can become a problem which can lead to diarrhea and colic. Limit the sand ingestion by feeding off the ground or in areas without as much sand.

If using a feeder, put stall mats underneath since the feed and hay can fall to the ground and be picked up by livestock.

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Buying and Producing Hay/Forage To Prevent a Shortage

Cattle in barn eating hay

In a drought, forage production can suffer. Livestock grazing and hay making on the farm can be negatively impacted. Planning early and having the right purchasing and production strategies in mind can help reduce the risk to the welfare of your farm animals.

Buying

Protect yourself and your livestock by buying hay early in the year in preparation for a hay shortage in the market later on, when your livestock need it most. In addition, buying hay during a drought can be more costly due to transportation costs, increased demand, and shortages.

When stocking up, think beyond grass or grass-legume mixtures. High-quality alfalfa hay is a high protein alternative that is sometimes more affordable than grass or grain hey.

Oat hay is another alternative but is missing calcium and other trace minerals. If using oat hay, it must be used in a ration balanced to ensure the animals get all of their nutrient requirements.

Producing

In the event of an emergency, mid-summer planting can help provide the right amount of forage or grain. Planting in the fall can also provide feed supplies for the following year. Here are a few tips to keep in mind to avoid drought-stress crops.

  • Plant early: Planting early allows you to have a better chance of completing pollination before the driest days come around.
  • Adequate fertilization: The right level of fertilization can grow a strong plant that can efficiently use the moisture available.
  • Weed management: Control the weeds to prevent them taking up water from crop plants. Fewer weeds equals more water for your crop.
  • Residue management: Keep a residue cover by using conservation tillage or no-till methods to reduce evaporation from the soil and preserve as much water as possible.

Pasture Management

Herd of goats grazing on hillside

If you choose to irrigate your pastures, a light irrigation every few weeks can help keep your grazing land alive. Keeping it any greener or fuller will take a lot more water. You are just giving it enough to keep the roots alive (about ½ inch) until the rain returns.

Help your pasture return after a drought by keeping your livestock in dry lots whenever possible. If you cannot, at least keep some of your pasture clear. When it finally does rain, the pasture can recover quicker.

Even after the rain has come back, allow the pastures to rest for a few weeks until they have recovered enough. Allow your grasses to get green and reach 6 to 8 inches in height before allowing grazing.

The longer you let your pasture rest, the better. When the pasture is growing, give it some nitrogen in the fall to promote root growth. If pastures do not return, you may need to reseed in the spring but check the soil fertility first.

Develop a strong pasture with deep roots with a pasture management program. This includes soil fertility testing, weed control, frequent mowing, and rotational grazing. Rotational grazing prevents overgrazing and allows your pastures to grow deeper roots and become more drought resistant while preventing weed growth.

Alternative Grazing

If you are experiencing reduced pasture and forage, consider making arrangements for your animals to graze on nearby lands not affected by drought. Some landowners may still have forage available and are looking to get some extra income through pasture leasing. Other landowners may be looking to remove vegetation to reduce the risk of wildfire on their property but do not have any livestock. Just make sure to closely follow your livestock’s normal feeding cycle without making any major changes right away.

If a pasture is severely limited, farmers can use grain or a different type of grain with their old grain as a supplement. Drought-stricken forage has been stressed out by lack of water and high temperatures, which leads to poor nutritional quality. Low forage quality and quantity mean livestock cannot consume their caloric demands or get the right nutrients. The stress from the drought affects the plant’s metabolic functions, resulting in lower mineral, protein, and vitamin concentrations.

If you are planning to supplement your pasture and forage, start by gradually increasing the new grain levels while decreasing the old grain levels over about a one-week period to slowly adapt your livestock to the new grain to avoid any digestive issues.

Farmers can supplement forage with the following:

  • Range cubes
  • Grain byproducts
  • Protein Tubs

When forages do not contain the necessary minerals for optimal livestock health, salt and mineral licks (in block or loose form) are especially important in periods of drought. Supplementation through these products can aid in a variety of functions including feed intake, reproduction, growth, and immunity.

Here are a few minerals that cattle, in particular, need to thrive:

  • Calcium
  • Sodium
  • Phosphorus
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Zinc
  • Manganese
  • Copper
  • Cobalt
  • Selenium

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Wind

In a drought, heavy winds can blow dust into animals’ eyes. Dust in the eyes can cause irritation and inhalation can cause respiratory issues. Here are a few strategies to protect livestock from heavy winds and dust:

  • Fly mask for horses
  • Cover crops
  • Herbaceous wind barriers
  • No till farming
  • Windbreaks

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Wildfire

In severe drought conditions, the wildfire risk goes up, especially in woodland areas. Farmers who live near fire-prone areas should prepare with a wildfire evacuation plan. Make sure you have the right transportation and temporary housing for your livestock before a wildfire strikes.

Diseases

During hot, dry, and dusty conditions, parasites and infectious diseases are easier to spread since animals may crowd around the water, feed, or shade. Also, the lower nutrition reduces and weakens their immune system.

You should closely monitor your livestock everyday to catch any sickness or weakness early and treat it as best as you can. Watch out for symptoms and contact your vet immediately if any disease becomes apparent.

Reduce Herd Size

When adequate feed and water management is not enough to meet the requirements for all your animals, there are ways to reduce the size of your herd, including culling, early weaning, or selling livestock to lower the herd size.  Be sure to consider this option as soon as you see drought options.  In severe drought conditions many farms will be reducing herd size which drives down sale prices.  The more proactive you can be to seek out the best sale opportunities the more you can avoid selling low in a year where every dollar is critical.

Culling

Selling a part of your herd is a common way to reduce the size. In terms of cattle, consider culling open cows, old cows, low producers, or cows that calve late in the calving period.  By reducing your herd, you give the rest a bigger ration of the smaller feed amount within the drought and less feed to purchase or store for what you may winter over.

Early Weaning

In the case of lactating animals that are losing too much weight, their offspring should be weaned early and given a supplemental feed.

In a drought, some producers may sell their calves at younger ages, wean and feed them separately from cows, or supplement the entire herd with additional feed to prolong early weaning.

Dry cows in their early to mid pregnancy do not have a lot of nutritional needs so they can be maintained with lower-quality forages and some or no supplemental feed.

Creep Feeding

If you cannot wean your nursing calves, creep feeding can be a good option. Creep feeding of grains, forages, and protein supplements can be a good alternative to inadequate milking.

Managing Livestock In a Drought

Creating a complete drought management plan can reduce the risk to the welfare of your animals. Make sure to follow these drought management tips to protect your livestock’s health during the summer’s hot and dry weather.

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