Dry pastures may need supplemental protein

Protein supplements can enable cattle to continue grazing if there is grass but it’s simply dry. | Bart Lardner photo

Supplement options include cereal grains and alfalfa pellets; dried distillers grain is considered one of the best choices

In a dry year, various strategies can be helpful, such as supplementing dry pastures.

Bart Lardner of the University of Saskatchewan says producers can provide a supplement if mature dry grass is not providing adequate protein.

“Look at the various protein sources in your area that might work; it might be a cereal grain (barley, oats or wheat) or an alfalfa pellet. It might be a screenings pellet from a local feed mill. You’d just have to watch out for ergot or some other problems in the screenings pellets,” he says.

Dried distillers grain is one of the best protein supplements, and can work well if the source is close enough and freight isn’t too expensive.

A protein supplement can enable cattle to continue grazing, if there is grass but it’s simply dry, says Jim Bauer, a rancher in south-central Alberta.

“Usually the mature grass has a lot of energy in it (microbes in the rumen break down the fibre into digestible nutrients, including energy) but the cow needs protein in the diet to enable the rumen microbes to break it down,” Bauer explains.

Otherwise the cattle can’t eat enough of the dry forage because it moves so slowly through the gut. Cattle can manage fine on mature dry grass or straw, but they must have protein to utilize it efficiently.

“People feed a lot of straw in the winter here because we have lots of grain production, but the cattle need to have protein with it. Mature grass pasture is the same. There are many forms of protein that work. It might be four or five pounds of second-cut alfalfa per head; that works well and is often the cheapest source compared with pellets or lick tubs,” he says.

Alfalfa doesn’t need to be fed every day; feeding an adequate amount every second or third day works well.

“The price of various protein sources may vary from year to year and you might need to shop around to see what is available and most cost-effective,” says Bauer.

If there isn’t much grass, however, cattle will need more than protein.

“There have been times we’ve had to roll out hay bales to give the cattle something to eat,” says Lardner. “Good quality straw can also work, if you have some protein to balance the diet.” In a severe drought a person might put the cattle into a small sacrifice pasture or drylot and feed some hay, or feed straw along with a protein supplement.

“If you do try to use pastures during a drought, don’t overgraze them; it should be short, fast moves —rotating through them quicker — if you are trying to use what little bit of pasture you do have,” he says.

Another strategy if you are low on pasture for cow-calf pairs is to creep feed the calves.

“You could use whole oats or other grains or special creep formulations. This takes some of the pressure off the cow so she won’t have to produce as much milk and the pasture can go farther. A person can also wean calves early if pasture is really short,” says Lardner.

Feeding drought damaged crops is an option. In some years grazing drought-damaged and salvaged crops can be a lifeline for producers.

Monitoring manure is one way producers can determine when it might be time to start providing a protein supplement. The manure is firm and stacks up in a pile, rather than a loose cow pie, when a cow is short on protein. | Jim Bauer photo

“Drought affects everything, not just pasture. If a crop doesn’t produce enough to harvest it might make cattle feed. It’s amazing what you can put in front of a cow to sustain her. If you have some canola or some other crop that’s not doing well, due to lack of rain, it could be grazed,” Lardner explains.

If using one of those options, he suggests sending a sample to check protein and energy density, and for any anti-quality factors that would be unhealthy for livestock.

A drought-stressed crop might be high in nitrates. In that situation, producers need to know the level of nitrate, and whether that crop can be safely fed, or how much to feed, or how to dilute it with other feeds that are not high in nitrates.

“Drought-stressed crops in our area may include canola and canola hay. There are many questions right now with our drought situation. Canola hay can be good quality, but feeding it straight is less palatable than mixing it. Canola can accumulate nitrates, so do a feed test,” he says.

“There are other crops that might work, as well. One year we had a drought-stressed lentil crop that we simply grazed in the field. There can be some issues there as well, with certain levels of anti-quality factors. We are always looking at different crops, trying to figure out if they will work for a beef cow,” he says.

“With any crop, do a feed test before feeding it to cattle — and realize that in a drought situation the plants tend to increase concentration of various components and are not what you’d normally expect.” The plants are trying to mature quickly and make seed.

There may also be health hazards in some drought-stressed crops, such as certain mycotoxins or ergot.

In a drought, there is always demand for pelleted products because many producers are trying to utilize dry pasture grass or straw with an added supplement such as a range pellet purchased from a feed mill.

“Those pellets usually consist of barley or peas, with grain screenings added. The screening ingredients might contain some mould or ergot from the grain,” says Lardner.

“When trying to find pasture, maybe you don’t have anything at home, but is there any pasture close enough to justify moving the cattle? This can be difficult if the entire region is in a drought. About 20 years ago, we saw a lot of cattle being moved to other areas because ranchers didn’t want to sell their herds, but this can be very expensive.”

He says it’s wise to have a year’s supply of feed stockpiled because drought is always just around the corner.

Bauer says it’s important to monitor pastures to know when they might be getting too dry and how soon to start providing a protein supplement.

“It also helps to look at manure,” suggests Bauer. “If a cow is short on protein, the feed will be going more slowly through the tract and the manure is firm and stacks up in a pile, rather than a loose cow pie. If the manure is firm you know the fibre level is going up and the protein level is going down.”

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