Worrying about the severe drought and how we are going to make it through the winter with limited or no stored forage has monopolized most of our thoughts, energy and time. There are some critical steps that need to be made in order for us to make it. Although these steps may not be palatable (because we will have to change the way we do things, it may take more work than what we want to put in or it may cost more than we want to spend), our goal should be to have an intact cattle operation when grass begins to grow next spring.
1. Cull cowherd to a number that you can afford to winter by getting rid of old cows, less productive cows and/or cows with higher nutrient requirements. Cows that are expected to calve in the fall will require more nutrients to keep them in proper condition, and a higher level of nutrition equates to higher cost of winter feeding. This number of cows may be the long-term carrying capacity for your operation.
2. Determine how much hay you have and how much you can feed daily for the expected feeding period. If you have as little as 10 pounds of hay available per cow-day, you may not have to purchase more hay or roughage to provide a balanced diet to your cows.
3. Test your hay or other roughage source. It is impossible to determine what your cows will require without some knowledge of the quality of what they are being fed. Hay is variable and moderate to low in protein and energy. Crop residues are more variable and generally low in protein and energy.
4. Cross-fence your farm now while you are feeding hay anyway. Keep cows on a smaller area of your farm while you are feeding them. You will be surprised how much forage growth you will have if pastures are allowed to rest. Since you have the farm subdivided, you can utilize these separate pastures in a rotational grazing system next spring and summer and you may have the additional benefit of increased pasture health and improved harvest efficiency.
5. Plant cool-season annual grasses or fertilize cool-season perennials in your pastures. The pastures you created are also a wonderful place to establish complementary forages. If you keep the cows off until these pastures are 6 or 8 inches tall, they will provide excellent forage for use later in the winter or early spring, which will decrease the hay feeding season on the other end and can be used as an early hay or silage crop.