The historic drought of 2012 will impact the cattle industry for years to come. With an inventory already at its lowest point in more than 50 years, a majority of U.S. ranchers were forced to thin their herds even further due to dwindling feed resources. Now they’re headed into winter with short harvested-forage supplies and staring at hay and feed prices that are at least double what they were last year.

Winter cow-feeding strategies

Forage conditions across the Midwest were described as horrible this summer, with end-of-July USDA data showing pastures rated “poor” and “very poor” in 82 to 98 percent of Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. With 8.27 million beef cows, those states represent roughly 28 percent of the nation’s herd.

The good news is that after an initial summer slump, cattle prices have rallied this fall, making it financially worth your effort to maintain at least a portion of your cow herd. Purdue University Extension economist Chris Hurt says cow-calf producers should hold on to cows if possible.

“The short-term losses of the next 12 to 14 months will be replaced by large profits in late-2013, 2014 and 2015. These anticipated ‘golden days’ are based on continued reductions in per capita beef supplies which will mean higher and higher retail beef prices, on an expected return to more normal crops in 2013 and beyond, and on record-high calf prices and profits in late 2013 and beyond.”

The challenge will be maintaining your cow herd without sacrificing quality and herd health. Extension beef specialists suggest evaluating the following tips to determine if they are appropriate for your operation this winter.

• Early weaning — Removing the calf usually means cows will consume 25 percent less dry matter than a cow nursing a calf. Purdue data suggests you can expect a 30 percent conservation of pasture resources when calves are weaned early.

• Cull cows — Now is not the time for freeloaders. Cull and market cows that have lost their calves, are open, are unsound or are generally poor performers. Pregnancy-check cows to minimize the drain of open cows on your resources.

• Use alternative feeds — Crop residues such as wheat straw and corn stover will require supplementation. Distillers’ grains may be an affordable option for some producers. Low-quality forages can also be treated with anhydrous ammonia to increase the protein content, improve forage digestibility, increase forage intake and improve cow performance.

• Minimize hay waste — Inspect feeding facilities such as bunks and large round-bale rings to be sure they are properly maintained. Stretching those precious hay supplies can also be achieved by limiting cow access to large round bales. A Purdue study found cow weight change and body-condition score change were not severely affected by length of access time for cows allowed 4-, 8-, 12- and 24-hour access per day to large round bales. However, the study revealed 37 percent, 17 percent and 4.4 percent reduction in total hay dry-matter disappearance for the 4-, 8- and 12-hour treatments, respectively, compared to the 24-hour treatment.

• Limit feeding hay — Other Purdue research suggests that limiting daily hay intake can also meet cow requirements if a properly formulated grain-mix is fed. The program limit-feeds a high concentrate ration that is similar to a feedlot ration. The researchers say this requires careful management and 30 inches of bunk space per cow to provide all cows equal access to limited amounts of feed. Consult a nutritionist or your local Extension agent for additional information.