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Dry Conditions Makes for Tough Decisions

By Travis Peardon PAg, Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist, Outlook and Leah Clark PAg, Provincial Cattle Specialist

June 2019

Recent rainfall has provided some relief for livestock producers but it will not make up for the moisture deficit of this spring. With precipitation still well below normal for this time of year, some tough decisions will have to be made by livestock producers. Even though it is early July, producers need to start thinking about winter feeding and making a plan to make sure animals will receive a ration that will meet their needs and maintain body condition for the upcoming winter. With hay being a scarce commodity this summer, unfortunately it leaves only a few options for producers. These options include reducing herd size, purchasing feed or sending animals to other locations for custom feeding.

Reduce Herd Size

Less mouths to feed has an immediate impact on feed required for the coming winter. The downside is this likely means selling into a depressed market. We always need to think about what the weather will be doing in six months and a year from now. Are we better to downsize now rather than feed animals all winter and hope for better pasture conditions next year? What will we do if moisture conditions don’t improve? Do your pastures need time to recover from being overgrazed this summer? These are all things we need to consider when deciding if downsizing is the right option.

Old animals should be the first to go. Followed by anything with conformation or disposition issues. Young animals in your herd should have the best genetics and should be preserved if possible. The financial implications also need to be considered. Downsizing a breeding herd will mean less revenue in the future from the sale of offspring but when compared to purchasing feed or custom feeding it might be the most realistic option when cash flow is considered.

Purchase Feed

The reality is that feed is going to be expensive. It is important to make sure any money spent on feed brings the most value for your operation. When looking at feed, producers should always look at both energy or total digestible nutrients (TDN) and protein. Some additional math needs to be done when looking at feed options. The price per pound doesn’t tell us the whole story. We need to know the price per pound of both TDN and protein in order to make the right choice.

Many times when hay is expensive, grain or pellets are the better buy as they are more nutrient dense. Feeding grain or pellets with straw can be more affordable than a hay ration but can create new challenges such as possible mineral deficiencies and impaction. It is important to work with a nutritionist when considering alternative feeds in winter rations. Remember, inventory is key when it comes to planning for winter. Cows consume 2.5 to 2.7 per cent of their body weight in dry matter and wastage must be accounted for. Feed testing allows for more targeted feeding programs and also allows us to get the best usage of the feeds available. For example, last year straw tended to be better quality than estimated values which allowed hay supplies to be stretched further.

Custom Feeding

Custom feeding is another option that should be explored by producers facing feed shortages. It can be cheaper to transport the cows to the feed rather than truck the feed to the cows. While this can offer economic advantages, it does require some homework. Too often we hear of animals sent away for the winter, only to return in poor body condition. A contract needs to be completed between the two parties spelling out the expectations of both. This should include things such as expected feed rations, body condition score of cattle at the start and end of the feeding program, health program and payment expectations. It is wise to plan to visit the custom feeder several times through the winter to make sure your animals are being cared for properly and receiving an adequate feed rations. Other things to consider are disease risks if your animals are being co-mingled with other livestock and trucking costs.

Making decisions during dry conditions can be difficult. Without knowing what the future weather will bring, it is hard to know if we are doing the right thing. Livestock and Feed Extension Specialists are available to help you work through any of the above mentioned scenarios. It is also very important to keep a check on our mental health when we are dealing with the stress that comes with these current challenges. Talking to other producers, friends and family can help with some of the decision making burden we feel. The Farm Stress Line is available 24/7 to help 1-800-667-4442.

For more information, contact the Agriculture Knowledge Centre general inquiry line at 1-866-457-2377.

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