Sky King Ranch

Drought Management on North Carolina Cow-Calf Farms

     Beef producers in the southeastern United States can grow large amounts of forage and maintain high stocking rates as long as soil moisture is adequate. But, when high summer temperatures are coupled with low rainfall, forage production decreases rapidly reducing grazing availability and hay production. Learning how to manage forage during a drought will help cow-calf producers remain profitable as the weather and feed supplies fluctuate from year to year.

Forage Types

     First, remember that North Carolina is prone to summer droughts, especially in the piedmont region of the state. Just a couple of weeks of hot dry weather can completely stop the growth of cool-season grasses, which recover slowly even when the weather improves. Over-grazing cool-season forages during the summer reduces fall growth and may potentially lead to stand loss, especially with fungus-free fescue and orchardgrass.

     Most cattle farms in the piedmont would benefit from adding warm-season forages such as switchgrass, bermudagrass, or dallisgralles to the fescue – clover base that predominates. These warm-season perennial forages also grow slowly in dry weather, but they are not as susceptible to drought as the cool-season forages are. Also, these forages are quick to recover once rainfall does come. Bermudagrass and dallisgrass also tolerate close grazing better than the cool-season forages. In general, having about one-third of available acreage in some types of warm-season forage helps producers manage summer droughts.

Summer Creep Feeding

     Probably the most profitable time to creep feed calves is during a summer drought. If forage is abundant (but low in quality), feeding about one pound of oilseed meal (cottonseed or soybean meal) will be quite beneficial. Once calves are eating one pound, 5 to 10 percent salt should be added to limit meal intake. If forage is limited, a full feed of a 16 percent protein grain mix is advisable, especially when grain is relatively cheap.

Early Weaning

     Early weaning should be considered when a summer drought hits. This will allow the producer to provide the high-quality forage that is available to the calves, while the cows can be maintained on low-quality hay or what is left of the pastures. If the breeding season is still under way (in spring-calving herds), early weaning will help get the cows bred back. If the cows are already bred (in fall-calving herds), early weaning will help get the cows back into condition for calving so that rebreeding performances will be good in the next breeding season.

Supplemental Feeding

     If the drought continues to the point that pastures are grazed close and cows are losing condition, supplemental hay should be provided. A 30-day emergency feed supply (in addition to the winter feed needs) should be kept for such situations. A recent survey showed that only about 25 percent of producers keep such an emergency feed supply – those producers will definitely have a competitive advantage during the drought year.

Cull Open and Old Cows

     When feed shortage is a problem one solution is to pregnancy test and cull any open cows and cows that are over 10 to 12 years of age. This will make the feeding situation better for the younger cows and replacement heifers so that they don’t get into poor condition.

Retained Ownership

     Retaining ownership of calves through the feedlot adds flexibility to your management program. When a summer drought hits, calves can be weaned early and sent on to the feedlot. Also, if the calves are kept around and gains are lower than desired, compensatory gain will be realized during the feedlot phase, reducing profit losses due to drought.

Reevaluate Stocking Rates

     A dry summer is a good time to take a closer look at the farm’s stocking rate. If grass runs out rapidly every time there is a dry spell, the farm is probably overstocked. If there is a lot of low-quality forage after a long drought, the farm is probably understocked. A properly stocked farm should be somewhere in between, and should run out of grass in a long drought – the management practices described above should then be used to get through the drought without liquidating productive young cows and heifers.

Alternative Feeds

     Producers should consider using alternative feeds for wintering cows and heifers following a summer drought. When feed must be purchased to get through the winter following a long summer drought, producers should consider feeding grain, by –products, or broiler litter to cows and heifers. Hay prices are often high following a drought season, and cheaper sources of energy and protein will usually be available.

     Research has shown that feeding high grain rations will work, but a minimum of 4 pounds of hay should be fed to maintain normal rumen function. A ration of about 12 pounds of a 12 percent protein grain mix (92 percent corn and 8 percent soybean meal) and 4 pounds of hay can be used for mature dry cows, and 8 to 10 pounds of a 15 percent protein grain mix (85 percent corn and 15 percent soybean meal) and 4 pounds of hay can be used for developing heifers. Lactating cows will need 4 pounds 15percent protein grain mix.

     Broiler litter may also be useful in these wintering programs as it is a very cheap source of energy and protein. A ration of about 15 pounds of a mix of 20 percent ground corn and 80 percent stockpiled litter plus 4 pounds of hay should be adequate for a dry cow, while a 15 – pound mix of 30 percent corn and 70 percent litter plus hay-free choice should suffice for lactating cows. Heifers can be developed on a 10-pound mix of 50 percent litter and 50 percent corn plus hay-free choice. Other by-products such as soyhulls, cottonseed, or wheat midds may also be use useful.


     Producers can manage summer droughts by having a proper balance of cool.-and warm-season forages, and by using such practices as early weaning, creep feeding, selective culling, and retained ownership of calves. Getting through without selling young productive cows and heifers will be a key to future profitability.

Matthew H. Poore, Extension Ruminant
Nutrition Speicialist, North Carolina
Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University
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