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Drought Management Strategies: Preserving Next Year’s Calf Crop

daisy-hay-cropped

 

Alabama counties have experienced increased levels of drought throughout this past summer and fall. To successfully survive drought conditions, producers must develop a plan that considers not only the present, but also the future. Developing a plan to preserve next year’s calf crop is a key part of planning for a successful future. This article will explain the nutritional requirements of beef cows for reproduction and explore management strategies to help preserve next year’s calf crop in the current drought situation.

 

Requirements for Reproductive Success:

Beef cows should be managed to calve at a minimum body condition score (BCS) of 5 to ensure that they have adequate flesh to return to cycling and establish pregnancy. BCS allow producers to estimate the fat stores on their cattle and range from 1 to 9, with 1 being extremely emaciated and 9 being extremely obese. Cows of a BCS 5 will have a good overall appearance, with some fat covering over their spine, ribs, hips, and around their tailhead. As BCS drops below 5, bones become less and less covered by fat and become more visible. Follow this link for more information and helpful pictures for body condition scoring.

Determining your cows’ BCS and managing animals to maintain a BCS ≥5 is essential to ensuring reproductive success. BCS and nutritional status at both calving and during the breeding season affect reproductive success, so it is important to know where your cows are in their production cycle and manage them accordingly.  Cows’ BCS/nutritional status at calving affects the length of time it takes for them to return to cycling after calving, with cows of low nutritional status at calving taking longer to return to cycling post calving. Once the breeding season is entered, low levels of nutrition and BCS<5 cause reduced pregnancy rates. To survive the drought with next year’s calf crop intact, cows must be fed to maintain their BCS.

Cows require different levels of nutrition at different stages of production. Understanding cow nutrient requirements will help producers meet the needs of their cows to maintain a BCS ≥5. Reference this timely information sheet for more information on your cows’ nutritional needs and how to supplement with varied qualities of hay. Recognize that your cows’ needs are the highest in early lactation. This is the time period when we also need cows to return to cycling and become pregnant. Corners should not be cut during this important time period. Furthermore, note that it’s easiest to put weight on cows after weaning. If you currently have thin, dry, pregnant cows it is a good idea to use this time to allow them to gain weight necessary to increase their BCS to 5. As a rule of thumb, you can expect to gain 1 BCS with each 80 lbs of weight gain in mature beef cows.

Pregnancy examination is essential in all years, but is extremely important this winter as we continue or recover from drought. If cows have not been examined for pregnancy, consider having a veterinarian palpate your cows and cull open cows that have weaning age calves. This will allow for added income and less mouths to feed through the winter and early spring.  As you complete this year’s breeding season, pregnancy check your cows. Since resources were limited, there is a chance that BCS dropped too low and more cows than usual may be open at the end of the breeding season. It is essential to identify and cull these individuals.

Additional Strategies in Times of  Drought:

  1. Pay attention to your heifers- 2-year-old heifers nursing their first calves have higher nutritional needs than their mature counterparts since they are still growing. Furthermore, they are often bucked away from feed sources by older animals. It is a good idea to always manage heifers away from the mature cowherd, however in years of drought and limited feedstuffs it may be essential to allowing them to consume the necessary amount of hay/supplement to maintain their BCS for reproductive success.
  2. Consider early weaning of calves- if cows go into calving thin or become extremely poor while nursing young calves, it may be necessary to wean calves early to allow cows to regain the condition needed for reproduction. Calves 90 days and older can be successfully weaned onto free choice long stemmed hay with correct supplementation. Removing calves may help “jump start” cows to return to cycling and will lessen cows’ nutrient requirements so weight can be gained.

By taking care to manage cattle to nutritional levels necessary for pregnancy success, a producer can preserve next year’s calf crop through drought situations.

Sarah Dickinson, M.S.

Regional Extension Agent I

Animal Science and Forages