What to Do If You are Out of Pasture
by Dan Faulkner, Extension Specialist
Dry conditions for much of Illinois have reduced pasture availability this summer. Beef producers are asking for management techniques to cope with these conditions. The first priority is to develop a plan and implement that plan before you are out of pasture. There are a number of options to manage dry conditions and the best options will vary from farm to farm.
One option is to wean the calves early and place them on feed. Our early weaning research indicates that calves can be weaned early and adapted to a high grain finishing diet. These calves will be very efficient and will have superior quality grades when marketed. Weaning the calves will reduce the grazing pressure on the pastures by about 35% because the calves are not eating grass and non-lactating cows will eat less grass. This will help to cope with dry conditions and should be done before conditions become severe and there is no grass to extend the grazing period.
Early weaning also allows you to sell cull cows this summer (on a better market than in the fall), which will reduce grazing pressure. When we have dry conditions it is a good time to get rid of unproductive cows. Those cows that raise small calves, are old, or are unsound are good candidates for culling. Palpating your cows about 45 days after the end of the breeding season and selling open cows can also reduce late season grazing pressure by reducing the number of cows.
To maximize forage production under dry conditions, divide your pastures and rotationally graze. Even dividing the pastures into at least 3 or 4 paddocks (8 is better) will dramatically increase forage production under dry conditions. Don't wait until conditions are dry to divide the pastures because there will not be significant growth at that time even with rotational grazing. Producers who rotationally graze under dry conditions have much more available forage than their neighbors who were continuously grazing. Don't graze the pastures extremely short (less than 2 inches) or you will weaken the plants and when it does rain they will not grow well. It is better to feed the cows than overgraze the pastures.
There are a number of options for feeding beef cows if we have dry conditions. The first step is to wean the calves because it is much more economical to feed the calves than to feed the cows to produce milk for the calves. You can limit feed hay, corn or byproducts. This is a low cost alternative because a dry cow can be maintained on as little as 10 lbs of corn and corn gluten feed (1/2 and 1/2). You can limit feed high quality hay at about 15-20 lbs per day. It is possible to limit feed hay by limiting the amount of time the cows have access to the round bale feeder. With high quality hay (58-62% TDN) about 3 hour of feeding is sufficient to get the desired level of intake. With good quality hay (54-57% TDN) about 6 hours of feeding is sufficient to get sufficient intake for maintenance. With poor quality hay (less than 53% TDN) the cows will need to have continuous access to the hay. If cows are losing weight you can increase the feeding time and if they are getting fat you can decrease the time. Corn silage is another attractive alternative under drought conditions.
Often there is standing corn available on a producer farm or neighbors farms that will not have much grain production. This corn will produce silage that is comparable in feeding value to silage from corn with a normal amount of grain. The ensiling process will reduce nitrate levels by about 50%, which reduces the chance of nitrate poisoning. Obviously there are many different ways to feed beef cows. It is important to develop a feeding plan to use if we experience drought conditions.
It is time to start preparing for dry conditions. By following some of the outlines procedures, you can minimize the impact of dry conditions and position yourself for the upcoming year. If you have questions or need more information contact your local extension educator or check out our web site at http://traill.outreach.uiuc.edu/beefnet/.
Dan B. Faulkner, Extension Specialist / Beef - 217-333-1781