A good illustration for this column is a photo I recently took of a dried-out and brown cow pasture. And, if much of the southern Prairies doesn’t get rain soon, many good pastures will start to look like this, which may be detrimental to this year’s breeding season. To lessen its impact, producers should implement a good drought-feeding strategy.
The main goal of all feeding plans is to build or maintain optimum body condition in the cow herd, despite dry pasture conditions. That’s because cows and replacement heifers with a BCS = 5.0-6.0 should exhibit at least one strong estrus cycle before the bulls are let out on pasture and cows are likely to conceive within the first three weeks of the breeding season. In contrast, female herdmates with even slightly lower BCS below 4.5 often have weak or silent estrus cycles, which contributes to significant open-conception rates.
Science agrees. Research trials confirms that post-partum beef cows in good BCS must consume a good level of dietary energy or 58-60 per cent TDN (total digestible nutrients) and crude protein level of about 11-12 per cent in their daily diet. These levels are particularly important when cows are milking at their highest levels (re: 10-15 litres per day). In addition, first-calf cows may not eat or milk as well as older cows but their dietary requirements are almost the same since they are still growing.
I would expect that most spring cows on the Prairies by now (early June) have calved. They are nursing a calf, but are two to three weeks past their peak milk production, yet milk still supplies most of their calves’ nutrients.
So as a beef nutritionist, my drought-feeding advice is based upon meeting the above nutrient requirements, where low-quality forages such as dried-out short pastures (or low-quality harvested forage) should be supplemented with other more nutritious feedstuffs. In this way, I concentrate upon meeting the cow herd’s first limiting nutrients — energy and protein requirements, plus vitamin A — that are mostly likely deficient on these short-drought-stressed pastures.
Lick tubs close nutritional gap
Case in point: I often recommend that low-moisture cattle lick tubs be fed on dried-out pastures, because they can relieve a shortage of all three of these essential nutrients for brood cows and calves. When the cow’s rumen bugs are supplied with a readily available source of carbohydrates from the molasses, it helps them digest high levels of forage fibre and thus helps meet the cows’ dietary energy requirements. This increased bug activity in turn increases the amount of microbial-derived protein (digested in the lower gut of cattle), which also helps cattle meet some of their total protein requirements.
Additional dietary protein can also be added to low-moisture lick tubs from several sources such as corn distillers’ grains, soybean or canola meal as well as cost-effective non-protein nitrogen. As a result, a 30 per cent (15 per cent NPN) low-moisture molasses lick tub can easily compliment a drought-stressed pasture that may look green, but still contain only six to eight per cent protein.
These lick tubs can also be fortified with high levels of vitamin A (75,000 iu/hd/d), which are often depleted in stressed fields or decreased in any pasture stand as the breeding season progresses. In addition, lick tubs often contain appreciable amounts of essential trace minerals such as copper, manganese, zinc, iodine, cobalt and selenium, which can be added in both inorganic (copper sulphate) or more bioavailable organic forms.
I know of a cow-calf operator who calves out about 300 beef cows in the southern corner of Manitoba. He puts out about two dozen, 30 per cent protein lick tubs that nutritionally match his present brown pastures, which he has done for the last three years. He said that his cattle can retain body condition during the breeding season and thus rebreed well.
This to him is worth spending nearly $0.70 per cow per day. Besides, like many of his neighbours that prefer to purchase a semi-load of 14 per cent grain screening pellets due to their lower cost (0.50-$0.60 per head); this producer doesn’t have a practical way to feed them on many of his pastures.
Maybe this producer would have been able to save money on his feeding costs if he explored other feeding options. Yet for the time being, he has a drought-feeding plan that works on his particular operation. In the end, he covers off the nutrient requirements of his cow herd during dry breeding seasons and successfully gets them rebred with next years’ revenue.