The following questions are designed to assist cow-calf producers in determining next steps and best management practices when considering how best to manage their cowherd in the event of extended drought. Possible outcomes from this decision tree may include:

• Leaving cows on pasture with supplementation

• Confinement feeding of cows on-farm by producer

• Feeding cows in a commercial feedlot

• Early-weaning calves

• Selling all or a portion of the cowherd

Several critical questions you need to ask to get the cowherd through the drought are:

1. Do you have feedstuffs? Is the supply adequate to provide for all or a large portion of your current herd throughout the remainder of the grazing season, as well as throughout the winter and pre-calving season?

2. How difficult would it be to replace the genetics of your herd? Do you receive premiums for the genetic merit of your herd?

3. What is the stage of production of your cowherd? Cows with higher requirements will require more feed and increase costs.

4. Are you going to early-wean calves? Because lactating cows are expensive to feed, a management option to reduce feeding costs might include early weaning.  Additional advantages of early weaning include improving cow body condition, calf performance, conception rates and forage availability for the cow (or decrease amount needed to feed cows for maintenance). Some disadvantages include more attention to management of the calves and increased cash costs.

5. Are you keeping your pairs together? Placing cows with young calves in a confinement setting requires additional considerations.


6. What type of facilities do you have? Do you have access to adequate facilities to provide comfortable housing for the cowherd on-farm?

Recommendations for cows:
• Pen space = 200-800 square feet/cow, depending on the stage of production, surface type, drainage and weather conditions

• Bunk space = 24 to 30 inches/cow

• Shade for cows is important in a dry-lot during the summer

• Free-choice access to abundant, fresh water is essential, as water needs greatly increase in summer months

Recommendations for calves:
• Pen space = 125 square feed/calf during summer and 250 square feet/calf during winter

• Bunk space = 12 inches/calf

• Free-choice access to abundant, fresh water is essential, as water needs greatly increase in summer months. Water should be in a container calves can access easily.

7. Do you have proper feeding equipment to deliver a mixed diet to cows in confinement if necessary?

8. Are you housing pairs on-farm?

9. Do you have a drylot for cows and/or calves on-farm?

10. Can you find a commercial feedlot to feed your cows and calves? Have you worked out the specifics with the feedyard in regards to yardage, diet, biosecurity and other fees? Are you sending either dry cows or weaned calves to the feedlot?

11. Do you have a whole-herd health vaccination program in place for the cows? Two important viruses to protect against from a reproductive standpoint are bovine viral diarrhea and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis. Placing cows in confinement also raises the instances of respiratory diseases, so vaccinating against PI3 and bovine respiratory syncytial virus is strongly recommended. Have the cows been vaccinated?

12. Has your herd been tested for BVD-PI?

13. Did you retain early-weaned calves? Is there a vaccination program in place?

14. How have the calves been processed and are you prepared to feed them?

15. Do you have an accountant to help understand tax implications?

16. Do you have documentation to show drought is the reason for dispersal?

17. Do you have a plan for rebuilding your herd once the drought breaks?

This is just a partial list of the considerations to take into account before moving to the next step in a herd retention program during drought. Work with your extension specialist on developing solutions to these and other issues involved with feeding through drought.

Three reference papers are available on under “Hot Topics” on confinement feeding- Decision tree: Options for management of cows and calves during drought; Managing cows in a confinement situation; Animal health considerations for cows fed in confinement.

Source: Jaymelynn Farney, beef cattle specialist, Chris Reinhardt, feedlot specialist and Sandy Johnson, livestock production specialist