Eastern Corn Belt livestock producers heading into breeding, calving and grazing seasons have much to learn and apply from last year's drought, two Purdue Extension specialists say.
While climatologists don't expect a repeat of last summer's extreme conditions, parts of the region are known for variable weather and milder late-season drought that can affect feed supplies.
"Producers need to start out the season knowing what is in supply," said Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist. "If there is any amount of hay or silage that's laid back, know the number of days' supply available in case you get in a pinch because of dry weather."
Early spring also is a good time to evaluate grazing strategies. Both Johnson and Purdue Extension beef specialist Ron Lemenager agreed that rotational grazing can keep pastures in better shape longer — whether conditions are stressful or not.
By dividing pastures into paddocks and rotating animals from one section to the next, producers are giving pastures a chance to recover between grazing sessions.
Producers should be scouting pastures and alfalfa stands, as well, and deciding how they will revamp those that sustained damage from drought and over-grazing. Johnson said the earlier scouting is done, the better.
"Seed is limited for many forages this year," he said. "If producers plan to plant a forage crop, they should check with seed suppliers about availability and be prepared to place an order sooner than later.
"When asking suppliers about availability of seed, producers also should inquire about seed quality."
Equally as important for livestock producers is knowing animals' body conditions coming out of winter and heading into calving and breeding seasons, Lemenager said.
"I think during last year's drought, we reconfirmed that body condition scores at calving and breeding season are really important reproductively," he said. "Cows in breeding season need to have at least moderate body condition scores."
If feed supplies look to be short again this year, Lemenager said, cattle producers have some options to keep calves fed and cows in acceptable body conditions.
One such option is to supply supplements to cows to support lactation.
"An alternative to that is to creep-feed the calf, and that might be a strategy if we are looking at short-term drought," Lemenager said. "If it looks like we're going to have a longer-term drought, I think the real strategy that should be considered is early weaning of calves."
Other lessons Lemenager and Johnson said came out of the drought:
• There are many niche crops that can be used as forages at particular times in the year when the need is most critical. Examples include small grains, brassicas and summer-annual grasses.
• Alfalfa is a very drought-tolerant plant.
• Some feeds labeled as dangerous by themselves, such as nitrate-containing corn silage or aflatoxin-infected corn, can be blended with other feedstuffs to create safe feeds.
• Corn silage and corn stalks in the right rations can make good-quality feed.
• Cows bred during May and early June have much higher conception rates than those bred during the heat of summer in late-July and into August.
• Parasite control is extremely important when animals are grazing short plants, especially in periods of recovery rains when parasites move up and down the plant shaft.
Publications about managing livestock in short feed supply scenarios also are available at http://www.thebeefcenter.com by clicking the "Dealing with Drought" link in the left column.
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