Feeding beef cows a balancing act after drought

AMES, Iowa – Iowa beef producers have to balance dietary and nutritional considerations with getting the most value for their dollar after feed prices skyrocketed this winter as a result of last year’s drought, said an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach beef cattle expert.

Joe Sellers, an ISU field specialist who focuses on cattle, said the drought drove up the price of corn and withered pasture land, forcing producers to lean more heavily on options such as corn silage to feed their herds. The drought forced many cattle producers to turn to hay early in the year because much of the suitable grazing land dried out quickly. Now, hay is in short supply, Sellers said.  

“Beef producers are in a situation where you have to stretch your resources,” he said. “A lot of people are really short on forage, so they want to use concentrated feeds that go farther. A lot of people are using a combination of hay, silage, corn stalks and corn co-products as food sources, and everybody’s situation is a little different.”

Sellers said corn silage is high in energy but lacks the kind of protein that cattle require while corn stalks and CRP hay are low in both energy and protein. Normal Iowa-grown hay from legume grass is usually high in protein but may not contain enough energy. Because of the varying content of each type of feed, Sellers said many producers have to supplement their rations with co-products that strike the right nutritional balance for their herds. Common supplements to make up for low protein content include dry gluten and dry distiller’s grains, he said.

“Hay and pasture land were in short supply last year, but there are still plenty of options,” he said. “It’s a matter of finding the right combination that fits each individual situation.”

He emphasized that producers can consult ISU Extension and Outreach beef specialists to make sure their rations will meet the dietary needs of their herds. The ISU Iowa Beef Center recently posted an online video clip of Sellers explaining what kind of feed options are available to Iowa producers. Sellers said producers can take samples of the silage they intend to use and have the samples tested in commercial labs.

Sellers said Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is working with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation to provide Iowa livestock farmers with an update on the market and strategies for running their operations in the face of current challenges.  The “Managing Through Stress: A Livestock Information Event” will be held on Monday, Feb.  4, and broadcast online to 14 sites throughout the state.

“The big thing is to make sure you’re adjusting to the needs of your herd,” Sellers said. “Make sure you’re having your feed tested and be responsive to changes in the weather.”

Producers will be paying particularly close attention to rainfall this year as well, he said. Another year of drought would drive feed costs even higher, which would likely encourage producers to consider culling their herds.