The Prairies and the British Columbia Interior are likely to see more drought in the future as predicted changes to weather patterns take effect.
Drought management is needed before disaster strikes, said John McKinnon, professor emeritus from the University of Saskatchewan and head of JJM Nutrition Services.
“The writing is on the wall that weather patterns are changing so when it comes to dealing with droughts, first and foremost you need to have a plan. This is not a plan that you implement in April when it looks like the rains are drying up, it is a management plan you can implement 365 days a year,” he said at the Canadian Beef Industry conference held recently in Calgary.
Hay crops are hit hardest by drought. Finding hay in a drought is expensive. Straw as a replacement feed is almost nonexistent in many parts of the country in the last few years partly because of changes to harvest technology that chops and spreads it on the ground.
Planning for drought may involve short-term decisions like culling older cows and those that are not pregnant or are structurally unsound.
Consider early weaning or creep feeding calves to take lactation pressure off the cows, he said.
The western Canadian beef survey found most producers use two or three different ways to feed their cattle over winter.
Many methods are labour intensive and involve delivering feed to cattle, but alternatives like swath grazing can reduce labour. The cattle come to the feed and spread their manure.
Combined with a good water supply, fencing and windbreaks, this system extends grazing well into the winter.
Bale grazing is another alternative. Bales are placed strategically in the field so cattle can move sequentially through the paddock in winter.
Corn grazing is gaining popularity. Good electric fences, water and shelter makes it work well. However, corn is an expensive crop and needs the right agronomic management to offset seeding and fertilizer costs.
Silage, in the form of round bales or chopped silage, makes excellent quality feed for cows before and after calving.
Straw-based rations can be a natural substitute for hay rations in a drought. However, straw is deficient in protein, energy, minerals and vitamins.
“If you fail to adequately supplement that straw that you are feeding, those cows are going to lose condition and lose weight and that will have a negative impact on rebreeding,” he said.
If they get too much straw they may suffer from compaction in the gut. However, if they are in good condition, they can get by on a poor diet but once they have calved they will need more energy and protein.
In the drought years, other emergency feed sources may be available.
Grazing corn stalks, stovers or byproduct feeds are available. Oilseed, lentil or grain screenings and distillers byproducts vary in nutritional quality and supply may be limited.
“If you find yourself in the middle of a drought situation and you start to look for grain pellets, you will find very quickly they are booked up or sold out or extremely high in price,” he said.
Targeting nutrient requirements of cattle in normal and drought situations needs to consider the stage of pregnancy and lactation. Second calf heifers may need extra attention to meet maintenance and growth requirements so they will rebreed.
Get feed tested, especially when there is a shortage and try to use local sources because they are cheapest.
“If you know the quality of those feeds you can appropriate supplement protein as necessary,” he said.
Cattle need vitamins and minerals in a drought as well. A lack of energy and trace minerals can result in fertility problems.
Try to avoid excessive loss of body condition, McKinnon said.
If cows lose too much weight following calving there will be subsequent problems with them getting back into heat and getting pregnant the next season.
Another alternative is turning cattle onto hay stands, said Karin Lindquist, forage-beef specialist at Alberta Agriculture.
“This year, we have been seeing quite a bit of pasture shortage from the stress of the dry spring. Cows were turned on to pasture earlier than we hoped they would,” she said.
In other regions, there has been so much moisture since June, the hay was not cut in time or windrows were rained on.
Most hay land includes some alfalfa in it. Having legumes in the stand adds pounds to growing calves and leaves the cows in good condition going into winter.
However, there is also a bloat risk so management is needed to mitigate the risk, she said.
When managing cattle grazing alfalfa, products like Alfasure work well. It is added to the water and acts like an anti-foaming agent to control frothy bloat.
Younger alfalfa plants present more risk than mature stands. Mature stands of alfalfa or those turning brown do not mean it is bloat-free.
The most important aspect of grazing management is to introduce cattle slowly to the stand. Make sure they are not hungry and looking for extra feed and overeat.