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Fischer encourages ranchers to consider all options in making decisions during drought

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Many ranchers become very attached to their cattle, and during times of drought it can be tough to make decisions regarding which cattle to sacrifice. 

It is important to develop a drought plan before there is a drought and establish trigger points, said Colorado State University Livestock Extension Specialist Michael Fisher. 

“If something happens, there is a reaction. An example is estimating of how much forage you have on hand June 15. If you don’t have that amount of forage, you may decide to sell backgrounding steers early or not keep replacement heifers. With a drought plan, it is important to monitor, monitor, monitor,” he stressed.

“It is important to constantly monitor things like forage supply, feed supply, the condition of your cows and what your range condition is like. Decide on a strategy,” he said. “Will you feed cows, wean early, ship cattle to another state or area, cull deep into the herd or totally liquidate?”

While producers may choose to get rid of cattle, there are also opportunities to maintain their herds during dry times.

Feeding cattle

If a rancher decides to feed the cattle, Fisher said he should determine what feedstuffs are available and if any are available locally. 

Consider alternative feeds, like potatoes, that can be fed to cattle with the right equipment. 

Other important considerations are how much other feed will have to be purchased to balance a ration with the feedstuffs available, where the cattle will be fed, and the labor resources needed to feed cattle in a certain area.

Ranchers may have to consider sacrificing a pasture or area close to the house to save on transportation costs, Fisher continued. 

“If you feed cattle there the entire time, it will damage it heavily, to where it will have to be revitalized or restored later,” he said.

Fisher said feeding the cattle a balanced ration contributes to lower feed costs and optimal production, in addition to preventing nutrient overload on land. 

As an example, Fisher referred to phosphorus in distiller’s grain. 

“The cow doesn’t need a lot of phosphorus, so if the ration isn’t balanced for it, it drops out the backend of the cow and builds up a lot of phosphorus on the land,” he explained. 

Nutrient requirements can vary depending upon the stage of production, breed, age, environment and stress level of the animal. 

“If I want to balance a ration, I need to know the nutrient composition of what I’m feeding and what the nutrient requirements are for what I’m feeding,” he said. “I would also recommend getting the feed tested.” 

Early weaning

Early weaning calves can reduce the nutrient requirements of the cow by 40 percent, Fisher said. 

In addition, direct feeding the calf is more efficient than the cow producing milk to feed the calf. When a calf is nursing, the nutrient strain of producing milk can inhibit breeding, especially during a drought. 

“If we can get those cows to breed back early, it will generally mean heavier calves the next year,” he said.

Although beef calves can be weaned at birth, like the dairy industry, Fisher discourages it. 

“Optimally, it is best to wean the calves at 45 to 80 days of age. It gives the calf time to build up immunity while it’s at the cow’s side,” he said. “It is also an opportunity for the cow to coach these calves and get them off to a good start and past any sicknesses. In many operations, it also lines up with the breeding season.”

If a producer is considering early weaning, Fisher said it can be beneficial to start the calves on creep feed a few weeks before weaning. Once the calves are weaned, they should be kept in a smaller pen. 

“Keep it as low stress as you can,” he cautioned. “Also, if you can sort by size and age, it will help with feeding. There won’t be as much fighting at the bunk. It is important to keep dust down and have plenty of clean, fresh water in front of the calves.” 

Other considerations include studying the distance away from the mother cows, placing bunks perpendicular to fence lines and allowing older calves to teach younger calves how to eat. 

“To keep the dust down in the feed, some molasses may need to be added,” he said.

Shipping strategies

Cattle can be shipped to another state or area for the summer, Fisher said, but producers should explore this option with caution. 

“I would first contact friends or relatives in that area to ask about any available grass. Next, I would call an extension office, commodity association or other group that may be aware of any extra grass. As a last resort, I would look at advertisements. It is a 50/50 shot whether someone offers you an opportunity or if it is a scam,” he said. 

Ranchers considering this option will also want to look at transportation costs, rent or lease costs for pasture, and if there is a daily gain fee for the cows. They should also consider whether the cows would be cared for the way they care for their cows. 

Fisher said some cattle aren’t able to adjust to different varieties of grass that may be available in another area and may not eat it. They may also be exposed to new germs and sicknesses.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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