There are several things producers can do to when faced with low moisture conditions. First, it's important to establish critical rain dates after which time action will need to be taken. Such action might include reducing stocking rates, arranging for winter feeding, comparing costs of alternative feeds, moving cattle to the feed rather than the feed to the cattle, finding pasture in other parts of the province, and if necessary custom wintering cows elsewhere.
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"Herd management options may include creep feeding, sending yearlings and cull heifers to the feedlot, weaning and pregnancy checking early, sending open, ornery and old cows to market as soon as possible, and selling bottom end of cows if feed costs will be too high over the winter," says Pat Ramsey, business development specialist - beef, with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. "Producers also need to use their contacts and the resources available to them such as local nutritionists, veterinarians, Ag-Info Centre at 310-FARM, Ropin' the Web at www.agriculture.alberta.ca , Foragebeef.ca and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development specialists."

Some practical suggestions for producers:

Creep feeding calves - under most pasture conditions, the average increase is weaning weight is 18 kg (40 lb) with a range from 10 to 27 kg (25 to 60 lb). Calves sucking good milking dams on good pasture will gain little from creep feeding, but if milk and/or pasture are poor, weaning weights can be substantially improved. When calves are on creep feed, they tend to substitute creep feed for forage in their diet. If a calf consumes 90 kg (200 lb) of creep feeding throughout the summer, a saving of about 68 kg (150 lb) of forage dry matter would result. This saving would represent an additional animal unit month of pasture for every four calves being creep fed. Creep feeding is beneficial as part of a preconditioning or early weaning program. Adjust stocking rates - every pasture has a set carrying capacity. If a pasture is overstocked, the resource will run out sooner.

If dry conditions continue, move yearlings and cull heifers into the feedlot and consider early weaning. Early weaning - can be done when the calves are three to four months of age. A weaned cow requires 30 per cent less nutrients than a lactating cow. Benefits of early weaning include improved grazing distribution resulting in an extended grazing season, relieved drought stress on pastures, and improved cow body condition which leads to improved fertility at rebreeding. Monitor body condition score (1-very thin to 5-very fat) - a practical application of body condition scoring (BCS) is to watch for thin cows (BCS < 2.0). "When producers find low condition scoring animals they should look for reasons such as a lack of feed, excessive competition, parasites and disease," says Ramsey. "Thin cows (BCS <1.5) are more susceptible to problems such as increased dystocia (calving problems), increased calf death loss, delayed breeding or open cows, and lower weaned calf weights."

Feed testing/ration balancing - increase production efficiency and profitability. Feed analysis in conjunction with ration balancing and body condition scoring can ensure an adequate supplementation program that reduces over or under feeding while minimizing winter feed costs.

Nitrates - accumulate in forages under frost, cold, cloudy weather or drought conditions can result in nitrate poisoning. When high nitrate levels exist (NO3 > 1.0%) it is wise to dilute the ration by including some feeds which are free of nitrates. Starting calves on feed - the goal is to feed in such a way as to overcome stress and rumen malfunction. Stress results in energy, protein, mineral (Cu, Fe, K, Se, Zn) and vitamin deficiencies (A, C, E), which lower the immune response and results in poor performance. Receiving diets should be palatable, bulky, high in nutrient content, similar to final ration, contain an ionophore (a chemical compound that acts as a mobile ion carrier), coarsely rolled, should contain more than 12 per cent crude protein (CP) with some by-pass protein."Feed your calves with the cow herd for a few days before weaning," says Ramsey. "Assemble all the calves going into a pen within three to four days and avoid mixing cattle. Morbidity and mortality are both lower when the receiving diets contain only good quality grass hay. Stimulate water intake by jamming the float on waterers. Feed in a bunk or along a fence line twice daily and watch for cattle not eating that may be sick and need treating. And don't forget to consult your veterinarian regarding vaccinations, pest control and antibiotics."

Step-up rations - start with a ratio of 30 per cent grain to 70 per cent hay. Increase the amount of grain fed by 10 per cent every second day. Make changes in the evening when cattle are full. Introduce silage slowly after a few days or after disease problems have subsided.

Alternative feeds - when considering alternative feeds, it is good to compare them on a cost per mega-calorie of digestible energy or on a cost per pound of crude protein basis. This can be done by dividing the feed cost per pound by its MCal DE/lb or by its per cent CP.

"Think about how you can influence the quality of feeds and how you might use cheaper alternative feeds," says Ramsey. "Work with your nutritionist to use commercial feeds to supplement home-grown feeds. Invest in needed supplements, but buy the right products and use them correctly. Feed test, ration balance and monitor your feeding program by body condition scoring cows."