Source: Government of Saskatchewan
The first problem producers usually face in a dry year is lack of pasture. If there is some grass, grazing time can be extended by feeding grain and hay or straw in the pasture. Feeding five pounds (2.5 kg) of barley chop per cow per day is the equivalent of having 20 per cent more pasture.
The most important consideration is getting the cows bred so there will be a calf crop next year. Energy is important, as are vitamin A and phosphorus, which are in short supply on dry pasture.
An average milking cow needs about 75,000 I.U. of vitamin A daily, either by injection every 60 days or in the grain. Intake of 1:1 calcium/phosphorus mineral should be about two to four ounces (50 to 100 grams) per cow daily. Mix with salt or feed with grain to make sure it is consumed.
If there isn’t any grass, consider sowing cereal crops for use as emergency pasture. Using cereal crops to extend fodder supplies is probably the most economical way of carrying your livestock through a period when pasture conditions are poor. Although feed can be purchased and transported, growing as much of your own as possible is usually the least expensive choice.
Oats can provide substantial emergency grazing if seeded on summerfallow or on low lying land where moisture is most plentiful. Barley, winter wheat and fall rye can yield as well as or better than oats. They are also suitable for grazing and produce high pasture yields in July, but taper off quickly in August.
The spring-seeded winter cereals are slower to establish than spring cereals, and produce high pasture yields in July and August. Their yield tapers off in September and October, but they do continue to produce, with yield depending on growing conditions.
Fall rye can be grazed for a period and still harvested for grain if there is sufficient moisture. A study conducted at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Station in Swift Current, showed that grazing in the spring reduced yield by 10 per cent; fall grazing reduced yield by 17 per cent and grazing in fall and spring reduced yield by 25 per cent.
Cereals can be grazed approximately four to six weeks after seeding, and can be stocked heavily in order to use all available growth. It is advisable to seed a second field three weeks after the first is seeded, so that when the first one is grazed off, the second will be ready. If a source of drinking water is available, this system can provide continuous pasture all summer. If enough rain falls later in the summer, the fields grazed early in the season may re-grow and produce either additional pasture or hay in the fall.
In times of drought, the previously mentioned cereals usually provide more yield than other annual forages such as millet and Sudan grass.
Other management considerations for coping with inadequate pastures are as follows:
- Confine cattle to a small part of the total pasture for as long as possible in order to give the remainder of the pasture additional time to grow. The rotational grazing concept will increase forage production in dry years as well as in times of adequate moisture.
- Graze grass hayland rather than legume forage stands if it becomes necessary to use hayland for pasture, because legumes provide much better second‑cut potential than grasses.
- Cut greenfeed from a portion of cereal crops intended for harvest as grain. Weedy fields would be the most likely candidates.
Creep Feeding and Weaning Early
Creep feeding pays when pasture is poor. Creep feeding takes the pressure off the cows, leaving them as much as 50 pounds heavier in the fall. This is important for winter maintenance. Calves gain efficiently, with feed conversions between 5:1 and 7:1, and will weigh heavier in the fall.
Calves like whole, coarsely cracked or rolled grain. The creep ration should contain 70 per cent Total Digestible Nutrients or TDN (energy) and 13 to 16 per cent crude protein. Good quality whole oats are often used as a creep feed.
When pastures are dry, it pays to increase protein in the creep feed. Use a natural protein source (no urea), pelleted so it won’t separate. For example, creep feed might be 40 per cent rolled barley, 50 per cent whole oats and 10 per cent pelleted canola meal or commercial 32:0 protein supplement (no urea).
There are a number of commercially available creep feeds on the market. They often contain added vitamins and minerals. Exercise caution when using whole barley. There have been cases of grain overload and acidosis when barley was the sole source of grain in the creep feed.
The creep area doesn’t have to be elaborate. Fence off an area close to water or salt, preferably with shade. An opening 16 to 18 inches (40 to 45 cm) wide and three to 3.5 feet (0.9 to 1.1 metres) high will let calves in and keep cows out. The creep feed can be fed in feed bunks, troughs or self-feeders.
Creep feeding works better on smaller pastures than on open range with long distances between water holes or salt licks. To calculate intake, a good rule of thumb is one pound (0.5 kg) of creep feed for every 100 pounds (45 kg) of body weight per day.
Start the calves on small amounts of feed and increase the amounts gradually. If too much feed is put out at first, some calves may overeat. Also, the leftover feed will go stale and calves may back off. Once calves are used to the creep, don’t let it run empty.
Wean calves as early as possible. Calves can be weaned at three to four months of age, if they are given a high-quality ration. It is cheaper to feed the calves directly than to feed the cows for milk production. The feed should contain about 70 per cent TDN, 14 per cent crude protein (no urea), 0.6 per cent calcium and 0.45 per cent phosphorus. Talk to your livestock nutritionist or feed company representative about feeding during the weaning period.
The ration may be more expensive per ton than cow feed. With calf intakes of about eight pounds (3.5 kg) per day and gains of around two pounds (0.9 kg) per day, feeding efficiency means low-cost gain.
Calves on creep feed for even two or three weeks before weaning will wean and go on feed much easier. Follow recommended weaning practices to reduce stress on the calf. Where possible, “process” the calf three weeks before weaning and treat weaning as a single stress.