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Dormant pastures: Summertime grazing affected by low-quality forage due to drought

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Continued drought is impacting Western producers and causing grazing pastures to become dormant early, as they typically would in October or November. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) BeefWatch podcast on Aug. 2 featured UNL Cow/Calf Systems and Stocker Management Specialist Karla Wilke discussing options to consider for substitute or supplemental feeding under drought conditions.


Wilke says many producers have moved to later spring calving in April or May, but May calving cows are currently under a lot of pressure and demand to lactate and cycle.

“If a cow is on poor quality pasture, she could be in a declining plane of nutrition which could cause her to stop cycling and have a pretty bad impact on open rates this fall,” Wilke says.

As producers begin to run out of quality pasture, they need to come up with alternative ways to feed their herd. They can utilize Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land, provide protein supplements, sell the cattle, etc., says Wilke.

“While CRP pasture is being released, it’s pretty poor quality, so producers may be looking at supplementing cattle on pasture,” she says.

Wilke says there is research indicating a high-level supplement can provide some forage replacement benefits, but the expense of supplementing may not always be worth the investment. 

“Supplementing is an expensive way to manage drought, so I want producers to understand just providing protein and energy supplement can certainly improve body condition score, but as far as forage replacement goes, it’s a much lower rate than they may be expecting to get if that’s all they do with the supplement,” Wilke says.

Wilke says another way to replace nutrients lost in low quality forage is to mix poor quality roughage, such as residues, with wet distillers’ grains and feed the mixture while cattle are out on pasture. 

“There’s been quite a bit of research done on this,” she says. “There’re two things at stake here – preserving those pastures for future use and trying to keep these cows in decent enough condition to breed.”

Benefits of feeding
on pasture

Wilke says a young calf around 60 days of age can be difficult to keep in a confinement pen, depending on how a producer is set up and if they typically do a lot of confinement feeding or not. 

“The calf may be able to crawl through the fences, crawl through the bunk or may not be able to reach the bunk or water well,” she says.

Wilke suggests putting feed into bunks in the pasture where cattle can access both sides of the bunk to ensure calves are able to reach the bunk. Providing this additional food source leads to less of a demand for grazing pasture and provides added nutrients.

She also says producers can move some of the cattle to a residue field, such as a field where producers just took wheat off, and put up a hot fence around the area to keep the cattle contained. 

“If producers feed on the ground, then the calf can also reach the feed, and that rumen development is really important right now,” she says.

“Keeping calves on pasture as long as possible buys a little time before the producer has to sell or wean,” says Wilke. “When a producer takes pairs to the sale barn, they’re banking on somebody else not being in a drought and being able to take the pair, or the cow will go to weigh-up and the calf will be sold separately, and a lot of people aren’t set up to deal with a 60-day-old calf.”

Wilke says keeping the calf at least up to 90 days gives the producer a better advantage, and it also may give the calf a bit of an opportunity to continue to eat whatever forage is around. 

“I know quality really isn’t there, but calves are pretty selective, so maybe the baby is getting a little more out of the pasture than the cows,” she says.

Drought management plan

Wilke advises producers “do the numbers” when it comes to managing their herd during a drought. 

“This is an expensive drought we are in,” she says. “There’re expensive residues, expensive hays, expensive alfalfa, pretty expensive distillers’ and commodities are high.”

She says it’s important producers evaluate what return they will get when they sell the calf based off the feed they put in. 

“If producers can’t make it pencil out, as much as no one wants to sell the genetics they’ve worked on in a cowherd, producers can’t put so much feed into them that they can’t get it back out either, so do the math,” she says.

Wilke reminds producers calves eat up to two percent of their body weight in forage out on pasture even when they are nursing on the cow.

“So, if early weaning is something a producer can do, consider taking the calf out of there – it is going to save some on the pasture as well,” she says. “There are no easy decisions, but a lot to think about.”

Kaitlyn Root is an editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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