Severe to exceptional drought conditions afflicting western and Midwestern states as well as other areas of the U.S. this summer can mean extra challenges for farmers who keep grazing livestock, especially heritage breeds. If you don’t already have a livestock-management plan in place for times of drought, it’s important to put one together right away as the dry weather can limit water, reduce forages for grazing animals and increase costs for supplemental feeds.
“The plan for a drought does not have to be implemented all at once and should be flexible to allow for changes,” says Jodie Pennington, a small-ruminant educator with the Lincoln University Extension. “It may rain tomorrow, but you must plan for the worst.”
Use these tips to formulate a drought plan for your livestock:
1. Make water available.
Water availability is a necessity in order to keep animals from becoming heat-stressed. The University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources factsheet “Livestock Management During Drought,” suggests implementing one or more of these water sources on your farm ahead of time to ensure high-quality water is available as long as possible during dry spells: springs and seeps, water tanks, ponds or reservoirs, and wells. In a pinch, water can be transported in from a short distance, but this can be costly and time-consuming.
2. Maximize livestock feed.
Drought is a time to get creative with your feeding options, as buying feed can be especially costly during this time. If you live in an area not as severely affected by drought or if you get small amounts of rain, plant supplemental forages for livestock, such as cowpeas, rape and buckwheat, which can be grown later in the season, suggests the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Also consider turning failed crops into feed.
Livestock might be tempted to eat poisonous plants when other grazing options are low, so be sure to keep a careful eye on your animals. They will also seek alternate grazing locations if access to adjacent properties is not secured.
“[Livestock] are apt to wander across the fence and to other fields when adequate forages are not available to them,” Pennington says.
If it’s necessary to reduce livestock rations over time, do it gradually, says the UC-ANR, and keep tabs on animal weight. Those animals losing 30 percent or more of their body weight are likely to die.
3. Secure temporary grazing lands.
If you’re unable to grow quality feed on your own farm, you might consider taking grazing animals to a nearby farm where the drought is not as severe. Whatever changes you make to the feeding cycle of your animals, try to avoid sudden changes in ration, especially for ruminants.
“If it is necessary to feed grain or use a different grain, mix the old grain with the new, gradually increasing the concentration over at least a week,” Pennington says.
4. Reduce the herd.
If you’re unable to meet the feed and water requirements of your animals, it might be necessary to reduce the size of your herd through culling, selling or early weaning. If heritage breeds are involved, this must be done with care, taking precautions to retain the quality and diversity of animals that remain on the farm.
“[If you can’t keep any animals,] locating a new steward will be the optimal solution versus the stockyard or sale barn,” according to the ALBC. “If you must sell, priority must be given to making sure breeding-quality animals get into the hands of capable people.”
For more information on the drought conditions in your area, visit the U.S. Drought Portal.