While there are many parts of the country dealing with flooding and excessive rains right now, others are dealing with drought or dry conditions. Additionally, weather forecasters are saying that the La Niña weather pattern will increase chances for drought in late summer and fall even areas that are wet now. Whether you’re in drought now or preparing for drought later, don’t wait to form a plan.

Drought Affects Forage Quality

We know that forage quantity and quality decrease in drought conditions. Drought conditions affect nutrient quality in a variety of ways. First, because there is very little new growth, animals only have access to older, less desirable plants in the pasture. Second, the nutritional quality of forages that are available is compromised by the stresses put on the plant by lack of water and high heat.

Drought stress negatively affects plant metabolic functions, resulting in low mineral and vitamin levels. Of these, phosphorus and vitamin A are usually most pronounced. Drought-stressed plants also do not metabolize nitrogen into proteins. Consequently, these plants contain low protein levels.

Watch Out for Nitrates

A deadly negative result of drought is the accumulation of nitrates in forages. Excessive levels of nitrates (over 1.5%) are toxic to livestock. Because nitrogen is water soluble, it is immediately taken up by the plant. When growth is high, nitrates are readily converted into protein, but when photosynthesis activity slows or stops, nitrates can accumulate.

Plants that are most susceptible to the accumulation of toxic levels of nitrates include: sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, pearl millet, corn, wheat and oats. However, when nitrogen is readily available (such as application of animal waste), other grasses like Bermudagrass can accumulate nitrates as well. Some weeds accumulate nitrates as well. These are pigweed, smartweed, ragweed, lambsquarter, goldenrod, nightshades, bindweed, Canada thistle and stinging nettle. Be on the lookout for these weeds in your hay and pastures.

A period of brief intense drought broken by rain, is more dangerous for nitrate accumulation than prolonged, sustained drought conditions. The plants need to be given time to convert built up nitrogen into protein before harvest or grazing. Therefore, do not harvest or graze suspected forages within seven days of a drought-ending rain.

Symptoms of nitrate poisoning are labored breathing, staggering gait and sudden death. The membranes of the eyes and gums are bluish due to lack of oxygen and the blood is a chocolate brown color, but turns to bright red when exposed to the air.

If in doubt, have your forages and/or hay tested for nitrate levels. You can request this service as a part of normal forage testing with your local Cooperative Extension agent.

Dealing with Drought Conditions

Drought forces producers to make hard decisions. Options include early weaning, moving animals to additional pastures, purchasing supplemental feed, and finally reducing herd numbers.

A lactating cow's nutritional needs can be cut by roughly 1/3 just by weaning. In commercial situations, it may make sense to wean early and sell off light calves rather than pay feed costs required to maintain lactating females and/or creep feeding growing calves. You will need to calculate the value of your market animals in relation to the cost of feeding them to carry them to "normal" market weight to decide if this is an option for you.

If the option is available, move livestock to alternate grazing areas, such as hay fields or harvested crop fields. If your hay fields are too stunted to harvest as hay, allow your livestock to harvest what is available instead. In the fall, you may want to consider making use of crop residues.

At some point, you will have to purchase supplemental feed to maintain your cattle. While high hay prices may lead you to look for alternatives, hay should not be totally excluded from the diet. Use of feeds and supplement blocks can help to maintain cattle productivity on low quality forages. It is especially important to provide supplementation to pregnant females under these conditions. Mineral needs are increased due to pregnancy or lactation and drought-stressed forages are more likely to be deficient.

Drought conditions this summer and fall will likely result in low quality hay and pastures for many cattle producers. When feeding low quality forages, nutritional supplements are necessary to maintain reproduction and growth. Supplements pay for themselves in added production when used properly in these situations.

Tips for Stretching Your Feed Dollar

  1. Reduce the amount of wasted feed. Purchase or make hay feeders that prevent animals from walking on hay.
  2. Deworm all animals and treat for coccidia. Don't let internal parasites place added strain on your livestock.
  3. Cull unproductive animals. Any animal that isn't meeting the production goals that you've set isn't paying for its feed.
  4. Always provide a complete mineral/vitamin supplement to deliver recommended levels of minerals and vitamins. Mineral-deficiency lowers feed conversion efficiency. More efficient feed conversion allows you to stretch your feed resources even farther.

For more information on how CRYSTALYX® self-fed supplements might fit into your management situation, visit www.crystalyx.com.