As many beef operations in the region are coming out of drought, producers are looking forward to utilizing their spring pastures and discontinuing hay feeding.
But if cold spring conditions have made forage slow in growing, there are a number of options producers can use to keep their pastures healthy.
“For grazing areas to fully come back this year, we will need to see monthly rainfall distributions in April, May, and June,” said Jerry Volesky, range forage specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). “When we have had dry conditions, overgrazing is inevitable, but grasses do have resiliency and we can bring them back through good management.”
Volesky noted that the carbohydrate reserves of most grasses are low going into spring in most western states due to the dry conditions in the fall.
“There were also fewer seed heads produced last year, so we won’t see quite the immediate comeback on grasses,” he said. “It’s important that producers outline a flexible grazing plan for the 2023 season.”
Delaying turnout on primary pastures this year is important, as well as reducing stocking rates, he said.
“In order to allow some of the grasses to accumulate and recover, we need to delay turnout, even if it is only a week,” he said. “I know that is hard because when pastures green up, producers want cattle off of hay, but waiting will pay off in the long run.”
Using “flash grazing” on some pastures may also be an option.
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“Producers can also do early flash grazing on warm-season pastures where there was an abundance of cool-season growth,” he noted. “Pasture rotations are also important and the first pastures you grazed last year should be the ones you graze later this year.”
Producers who are delaying their turnout will likely have use confinement feeding, potentially longer than intended. Making sure cows with nursing calves have the right amount of nutrition is key, according to Karla Wilke, a cow/calf management specialist with UNL.
“If you are bunk feeding cow/calf pairs, space is very important,” she said. “You need two feet per cow and one foot per calf. There also needs to be consistent feeding at the same time every day.”
Nursing cows also have much higher confined feeding demands, as much as a 50 percent increase in their feed needs.
“Too many times we depend on the cow’s body condition to make up the difference between nutrient availability and calf health, but the last three years of drought means those cows may not have extra condition to give,” Wilke said. “Normally, lush, green grass would meet those needs, but if that isn’t available, we need to create a lactation diet for the cows.”
Feed rations for a lactating cow should include 10 pounds of corn stocks, 35 pounds of silage, 18 pound of distillers grains (for a total of 63 pounds) per day and a mineral package.
Allowing calves access to the feed can also be helpful.
“From three weeks to three months, the rumen in the calf should be growing, and for that to happen, the calf has to have access to feed in addition to milk,” Wilke said. “Making sure the calf is able to reach the water and the feed is critical. You can feed some of the ground and run a hot wire so the calves can get under it, but the cows can’t get to some of it.”
Additional information on confinement feeding cow/calf pairs can found at ianrpubs/unl/edu under publication number g2237.