The drought of 2011 was unfavorable, to say the least. Unfortunately, many areas continue to face hardships due to the lack of precipitation in 2012. The potential return of an El Niño weather pattern this fall brings hope for the end of drought conditions, but the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook through Nov. 30, 2012, suggests the drought will persist or intensify in many areas of the Southern Great Plains. With guarded optimism, the following management practices will help you prepare for winter.
Sell all open cows
Early identification and removal of open cows should be top priority. With scarce and costly pasture, feed and hay, it is not economical to maintain these females. For example, annual cow costs averaged $450 per head in 2011 as reported by participants in the Integrity Beef Producer Alliance. This average will likely be higher for 2012. A cow that does not produce a calf in 2013 will not overcome that expense. You should also consider further culling, using a logical culling protocol. For more information, see Guidelines for Culling Cows at www.noble.org/ag/livestock/ culling cows.
Evaluate feeding programs and associated costs
Feed and hay prices are increasing. Table 1 shows the quantity of daily supplement required by a spring-calving cow when fed in combination with either low quality (LQ) or average quality (AQ) hay. LQ hay used in this example is assumed to test 5 percent crude protein. The AQ hay, 8 percent crude protein, is also evaluated and illustrates that substantial cost savings can result from knowing the nutritional value of your hay. Both hay types in this example are priced at $120 per ton. In this example, supplement is not needed when a cow is fed AQ hay. Whether considering hay for purchase or evaluating hay on hand, it is critical to analyze the hay for nutritive quality. For more information on hay testing, see www.noble.org/ drought/tips/livestock.
Supplements used in this example are 20 percent cubes (bagged) currently priced at $370 per ton, alfalfa hay priced at $240 per ton and a 50:50 blend of soybean hulls and bagged corn gluten feed (SBH/ CGF) priced at $320 per ton. There are many other commercial feeds and by-product blends that could be used. Always evaluate alternative feedstuffs available to you that will meet your animals’ needs. For more information on evaluating alternative feedstuffs, please see Managing Feed Costs at www.noble.org/ag/ economics/managing-feed-costs.
With these calculated supplement rates and assumed costs, the SBH/ CGF blend is the lowest cost option when fed in combination with LQ hay. Table 2 compares the 150-day wintering cost of this SBH/CGF supplement and LQ hay to the cost of AQ hay needing no supplement; the cost of full-time grazing winter pasture (WP); and the cost of limit-grazing WP with low-quality hay. Winter pasture costs are estimated to be $40 per ton of dry matter, assuming a per-acre establishment cost of $160 and a 4-ton forage yield.
Substitute winter pasture
The low costs of the two feeding programs using winter pasture show how drought has increased the cost of traditional dry matter sources, such as hay. Winter pasture is a very viable substitute for hay this winter, but be alert for several problems that might arise. The first is bloat. The cost of bloat preventatives, such as poloxalene blocks, is not included in the estimated costs shown in Table 2.
The second problem that might arise is the fact that non-lactating cows grazing winter pasture can consume five times more crude protein than they need on a total quantity basis. Often, a common symptom of this is dietary “scours,” especially when the forage is lush and actively growing. This problem may need to be addressed, but commonly subsides after several frosts have slowed plant growth and reduced moisture content. Allowing cows access to a roughage source, such as hay or standing grass, may help this situation. Third, if cows are to be grazed on winter pasture through calving, a high magnesium mineral will be needed to prevent grass tetany. The cost per cow of full-time grazing winter pasture includes one round bale per cow ($50) and the additional cost of a high magnesium mineral ($22) for the 150-day season.
Reduce hay waste
A final management practice to stretch your dollar: if your feeding program this winter involves hay feeding, be sure to use some type of feeder to reduce hay waste. It is not uncommon to experience waste up to 50 percent when feeding round bales without hay rings or unrolling the bales. Using a hay feeder to minimize waste during feeding is recommended. Oklahoma State University found that the quantity of hay wasted can even depend on the type of hay ring used. For more information about this study, see Hay Feeder Design Can Reduce Hay Waste and Cost at www.noble.org/ag/livestock/hay-feeder-design.
With high feed costs and scarce hay or pasture, it is imperative to evaluate all feeding options. If the fall weather cooperates as it did in 2011, winter pasture can provide the much needed dry matter for the cow herd during winter months. In any case, only productive cows should be maintained through the winter. If you need more information to think through your options, call the Noble Foundation or your county Extension educator.