As the drought continues, more cattlemen are asking how to stretch their pastures. There are two major techniques that may be pursued: one is to reduce the grazing pressure from the animal side, and the other is to supplement the amount of feed available.
Animal grazing pressure can be reduced in two ways.
First, by reducing cow numbers through selective culling. Consider culling any cows with structural, health, reproductive or attitude problems. Early pregnancy checking with ultrasound may be another tool to help tighten the calving period and cull very late cycling, open cows.
A second tool to reducing animal numbers on the pasture is to early wean the calves. Research has shown successfully weaned calves as young as 90 days or less, but consistently weaned those 100-120 days of age. Some of that success is dependent on giving one round of vaccinations to the calves prior to weaning, and creep feeding for 10-14 days prior to weaning. Weaning reduces the nutrient requires of the cow 30-50% allowing for energy intake to go toward cow maintenance rather than milk production. Creep feeding is another tool to reduce the feed requirements on the cow, but feed efficiency of creep feeding is extremely variable. Calves tend to be more efficient after weaning when fed directly.
The second technique is to supplement the cow while on the pasture.
There are several considerations including labor and equipment to feed, controlling feed waste, and the cost of the supplemental feed. Cost of the feed really needs to be the major consideration, followed by the issue of how to deliver and control wastes. Many producers will want to feed hay as the supplement, which seems like the logical solution. However, if feeding hay on pasture, producers need to be extremely conscientious about control waste and limiting intake. If allowed fulltime access to hay, cows can easily consume far more than is needed. Remember, you want to supplement pasture, not completely replace grazing.
Also, as hay price approaches $150-200 per ton, this probably isn’t the most cost effective option. For example, a mature 1350-pound cow fed completely in dry lot could consume about 38 pounds of hay per day which would cost $2.78 per cow per day if hay is priced at $150/ton. Studies have shown that cows need about 0.5-1.0% of the cow’s bodyweight in supplemental feed per day, or 7-13 pounds of hay to substitute for available forage, which would cost $0.50-$1 per cow per day. Another option is to supplement 3-5 pounds of grain or co-product and 5 pounds of hay per day which would cost between $0.65-0.75 per cow per day in addition to the available forage.