Feeding cattle in a drylot rather than range or pasture may be a viable alternative for ranches dealing with drought conditions this year. 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 (or never sent to grass at all), 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. If drought conditions are widespread, the market value for cull cows or pairs is typically depressed as well, compounding the financial impact.
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.
For operations with sufficient feed resources, buying pairs from drought-stricken areas and placing them on feed may be an opportunity. Market timing can be an issue if the plan is to market slaughter cows and then either sell or retain the calves. Placing younger cows in the drylot offers the potential for marketing young bred females at a premium plus the value of a weaned calf.
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 considerations for feeding pairs in a drylot include:
- Take steps to minimize hay waste if cattle have ad-lib access.
- Manage bunks carefully to prevent acidosis or other digestive upsets when limit feeding.
- Provide ample 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. A dedicated creep area for the calves will also help keep the calves healthier.
- If newly purchased cattle are brought into the yard, keep pairs isolated to avoid respiratory disease.
More detailed information about drought management can be found in Drought Management Tips for Beef Cattle Producers.