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Managing cow/calf operations through drought conditions in Wyoming

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Chance Marshall 

One thing livestock producers in Wyoming can count on is managing through drought conditions at some point. By the looks of things, most of Wyoming is in for a dry year. 

Managing grazing livestock during drought years, or multiple years of drought, can be stressful and difficult to navigate. However, there are strategies and considerations which can help producers get through tough times.  

Herd reduction 

The most obvious and economical response to livestock management during drought years is to reduce animal inventory to match available forage resources. This is the “panic” scenario many producers think about first.  

If depopulation is absolutely necessary, it is important to refer to individual animal records to determine which animals have been the least productive for the last two to three consecutive years. The bottom 20 percent of females in the herd should be those which have not had a calf every year, cows already in thin body condition or cows which have calved late in recent calving seasons.  

Identifying these females should be prioritized and considered first for culling. Maintaining thin and/or non-productive cows can cost producers money and can be detrimental long-term to pasture resources. 

Weaning strategies 

However, selling a big portion of the herd may not be the only answer to drought conditions. Management strategies such as early weaning of calves can be a great way to adjust forage demands during drought years.  

During lactation, a cow’s maintenance and feed requirements are at their peak. By removing calves from their dams earlier than normal, a cow can meet her nutrient requirements easier with less feed. 

 Many studies have shown early weaning can be accomplished with minimal effects to the calf’s performance. Although early-weaned calves are typically lighter at weaning, research has shown early-weaned calves fed high-energy diets following weaning still grade at or near U.S. Department of Agriculture Choice and perform well in the feedlot. Weaning calves as early as 45 to 60 days of age may be a good strategy to include in a drought plan. 

Supplementing grazing 

Rotational grazing strategies are an especially good tool to maximize carrying capacity of pasture and maintain forage health during drought years. A livestock producer must determine ways to concentrate grazing and allow for grass recovery to make the most of their pasture.  

Increased labor may be necessary to set up temporary pasture, move livestock, monitor grazing and haul drinking water. If hay resources are available, delaying turn out to pasture and feeding hay resources may be an option to allow for plant growth and preserve pasture resources.  

During dry years, weeds may be more prevalent, and producers should keep an eye out for potential toxicities from poisonous species. If forage is limited, cattle are more likely to graze weedy and toxic plant species. 

During dry years, a producer should be prepared for available pasture to be drier and lower in nutrient quality. In order to continue meeting requirements and maintain production, a supplementation program may be necessary.  

Protein levels must be met for ruminants before energy can be supplemented. Grain supplementation on low-quality forage – considered less than nine percent crude protein – can actually result in decreased forage intake and less energy capture.  

Mineral supplementation is also very important during drought years, especially phosphorus. By supplementing the diet with portions of a higher quality hay or added supplementation sources, some pasture resources can be stretched. 

Rebuilding after drought 

Following a period of prolonged lack of water often means producers see overgrazed areas and lagging forage regrowth. Much like forming a drought management plan, a livestock producer should assess the damage to their pasture resources and livestock and then consider ways to rebuild their inventory.  

This will likely require implementing non-use periods during the growing season to re-establish root growth and overall plant health. Without adequate recovery time, pastures may never produce like they used to. Prioritize pastures by their potential to recover quickly and allow additional time for heavily impacted pastures. 

 If prolonged pasture rest is not an option, delaying turnout a couple of weeks or increasing rotation frequency would be beneficial to restoring plant vigor. Target grazing early maturing grass species such as cheatgrass or crested wheatgrass and non-toxic weeds early in the growing season, combined with other forms of weed control, will also help desirable plant recovery. 

Many factors must be considered while developing a drought management plan. It’s in the best interest for the operation if the producer already has a plan to manage during the hard times. As the saying goes, “Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.”  

Chance Marshall is a University of Wyoming Extension Agriculture, Horticulture and Livestock Systems Educator based in Fremont County. He can be reached at or 307-332-1018.  

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