Balancing livestock need and quality during drought

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Timely and topical was this year’s Southwest Beef Symposium that addressed ongoing drought conditions and their effect on livestock producers management strategies.

According to Colorado climatologist Brian Bledsoe, whose mission is to provide forecasting to help agriculture in the West, “There are a lot of folks in the Southwestern United States who are struggling mightily with long-term regional drought in far West Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona.”

Bledsoe offered a series of colorful graphs showing that this year’s La Nina conditions “are a different animal and it will take some time before they go away.  These conditions will slowly weaken, persisting at least through Spring 2021.  Drought feeds upon drought and while we may see some big storms during monsoon season, it will be either feast or famine as I see fewer wet years that will be further apart.”

It’s those kinds of predictions that keep New Mexico State University professor Eric Scholljegerdes working on the concept of ruminant nutrition, especially in the lean times. His specialty is cow/calf nutrition with an emphasis on strategic supplementation to improve reproduction, growth, and longevity.  He addressed the symposium on the subject of “Nutritional Considerations and Options During Drought.”

The National Drought Mitigation Center, under the rubric of ‘Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch’, reports: “Livestock performance is a function of nutrient requirements and intake with quality and quantity of available forage the primary regulators of nutrient intake in grazing cattle.  Animal performance declines whenever remaining forage falls below a minimum level as drought reduces the number of days when green forage is available.”

Animal science experts at North Dakota State University indicate two main options for meeting cattle nutrient requirements on drought-affected ranges:

  1. Provide supplemental feed to ensure adequate nutrition
  2. A reduction in nutrient requirements to a point that cattle can meet them with available forage.

Scholljegerdes, who conducts his research on over 100,000 acres of cattle ranch near Las Cruces as well as a thousand head feedlot, says, “Today’s conditions are as bad as they were in 2011-12. Our research herd of 450 is now down to 150 and cognizant of the fact that a thousand pound animal can eat 26 pounds of forage daily, the question is how do I get my cows through this, balancing need with quality, without suffering long-range impact?”

While the basic feed for ruminants is roughage — in the trough or on the veld — when times are tough it can include grasses growing on verges that can be cut and bailed or whole cladodes of spineless cactus pears.

Scholljegerdes’ addressed protein and energy need formulas, stretching grass forage to get the most out of it before adding supplements.

In a follow-up discussion with Southwest Farm Press, he elaborated, “Once herds are reduced so that the number of ranch cows left can be supported by current grass, the old adage many ranchers go by is take half, leave half. You want to leave some grass back, don’t overgraze so that the following year there’s enough material left to avoid grass mortality. What you do now can have a long-term impact on the future well-being of cattle.”

Given adequate grass forage to maintain bovine bodily function, in a normal year, those grasses would turn brown in summer and the quality would diminish with less soluble protein and carbohydrates. “Cattle have to work harder to ferment their feed and they do pretty well on their own, but when we get into a drought situation, we’ve got to add a bit of protein supplement to their diet,” he said.

“That’s where it works out really nicely for us because giving them a bit of protein to supply those bacteria to assist in breaking the grass down, we actually get a little more utilization out of that grass as long as we know exactly what is needed to supplement protein-deficient grass.”

While those cows may be in late gestation with a higher protein requirement, “We don’t want to put more money in them than we absolutely need to because cows are a business and if we had to sell some of them off, we’d be losing potential for income.  But we do want to ensure the animals are well taken care of and are healthy and in a growth trajectory so they can carry a calf to the end of pregnancy.”

He presented a parallel between people and cows: “We’re supposed to eat so many calories a day to maintain ourselves and a cow is no different.  If we lose a couple of pounds, it’s not a dire situation. Same with them, except when they’re getting ready to calve. Then we want them to be continuously gaining weight because they’re growing that calf as well and we don’t want to short them of nutrients in late gestation.”

Although experts have compiled lists on how to handle nutritional concerns during drought, Scholljegerdes suggests: “Test your forage and water for quality and mineral content. Consult with extension agents and feed companies to ensure your animals have an adequate amount of protein in their diet.

“We can make it through these current difficulties.  We just need to make sure we’re giving the cows what they need and no more.”

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