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Quick Guide to Drought Management

Here is a check list of best management practices for managing cattle through a drought.

  1. Wean calves early, feed them for gain on good pasture or hay, and sell them when ready.
  2. Sell older and lower quality (e.g., performance, behavior) cows before prices drop.
  3. Do not over-graze pastures during a drought.
    1. Rotational grazing increases the ability to make it through a drought.
    2. After grazing, let pastures rest until it rains and plants regrow.
    3. Do not open all the gates during a drought!
    4. Feed hay in an abuse area that needs added fertility and wait for rain.
  4. Inventory hay and pasture.
    1. How much hay and pasture are on hand and what is their quality?
    2. Forage test hay by field and cut to know its nutritional quality.
    3. What is the expected date to start feeding hay?
    4. What is the expected spring turn out date?
    5. How many days will hay need to be fed?
    6. How many cows, calves, yearlings and bulls will be wintered?
    7. How many days of feed will the hay on hand provide for the animals wintered?
    8. How short is the supply of hay, in bales per tons and as a percentage of total feed required?
    9. How many animals need to be sold to equal the feed on hand?
    10. How many culled or marketed animals need to be sold to pay for purchased hay?
    11. What is the best supplemental feed to purchase for the animals being fed?
  5. Purchase hay and other supplemental feeds based on forage test and nutrient price.
    1. Purchase from within the region when available.
    2. Only purchase from outside of the region when required – use a reliable dealer to ensure quality.
    3. Shell corn is not suited for feeding with low quality hay due to high carbohydrate levels, which reduces digestibility of low protein hay. Shell corn works well at low rates with high quality hay or pasture for growing cattle.
    4. High fiber supplements (e.g., soy hulls, wheat bran) or high protein feeds (e.g., soybean meal, distiller’s grain) are the best supplements for low quality hay.
    5. The value of a feed is based on the quantity of total digestible nutrients (TDN) and crude protein (CP) it carries.
  6. Feed cows to a body condition score six (BCS 6) before cold weather. This is needed at calving for cows to rebreed in a timely manner. It is least expensive to do this by early weaning and using fall pasture before cold weather sets in. Cold, wet weather increases the energy requirement of an animal. A fat animal is better able to make it through cold weather.
  7. Stockpile forage when moisture returns.
    1. Pastures and meadows rested until rain returns will regrow the fastest.
    2. Tall fescue works best since it holds up to freezing weather.
    3. Orchardgrass is good, but it does not stand up well under snow.
    4. Smooth bromegrass and reed canarygrass go dormant early.
    5. Apply nitrogen at 50 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre if there is adequate soil moisture.
    6. Urea (46-0-0) works best if it rains soon after application.
    7. When clover is 25% to 30% of stand, do not use nitrogen since it will not be cost effective.
    8. Strip-graze stockpiled forage to get the most out of it.
    9. Graze stands with legumes first, prior to freezing weather, which kills them back.
  8. Two old but meaningful sayings to remember.
    1. “A fat cow is half wintered!”
    2. “You can’t starve a profit out of your cows!”


Author: Ed Rayburn, WVU Extension Specialist – Forage Agronomy

Last Reviewed: April 2021