How To Manage Cattle During A Drought

Drought is an unfortunate reality, and managing cattle during dry seasons can be challenging. These tips will help you get your herd through a hard season.

by Ashleigh Krispense
PHOTO: GillianVann/Shutterstock

In my last article, we discussed ways to help cattle survive during the summer heat. Today, however, we’ll be learning about how a drought can affect cattle. We’ll also look at what you can do to prepare for it and the best ways to cope during dry weather. 

When you have reached the point that your area is in a full drought, some tough decisions might have to be made depending on how long the drought lasts. If it’s just for a short period, your two main priorities will be finding enough feed and securing water for the cattle.

A local rancher explained to me that this is why they keep a year’s worth of hay on hand. By figuring up a rough estimate of how much hay would be needed to keep your animals fed for a year, you can then stockpile hay (or other feed) to keep in reserve. If an emergency comes about later on, you won’t be scrambling to find feed like everyone else or paying outrageous prices.

If the drought continues to last for a lengthy period, you may have to consider options such as weaning the calves early or downsizing your herd of cattle.

Read more: Get to know the Droughtmaster cattle breed, an animal that thrives when it’s dry.

What to Do for Your Cattle During Drought

There are a few ways you can try to help cattle out during a tough season. How you feed and care for your cattle will depend on where they are (i.e. steers in a drylot, cows out on grass, etc.). For the cattle in a feedlot, some of the best things you can do include: 

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  • If you’re running short on hay, consider buying more protein (such as distillers or grain) to help supplement and stretch your hay reserves. 
  • Be careful to avoid overcrowding the pen. 
  • Put up sun shades to offer relief from the sun.
  • Fog or mist the cattle with water if there’s no breeze blowing through the pen. Avoid creating water holes in the pen, but continue to wet them down again as soon as they’re dried off. To get an idea of a sprinkler setup, check out your local sale barns, as they often have them. 
  • Remember that so long as there is a breeze through the pen, they will probably survive. It will still be rough. But cattle can sweat (unlike hogs), and that breeze will help cool the animal and evaporate the sweat. 

Read more: Remember these key things when putting cattle on pasture.

Considerations for Cattle on Grass

For cattle out on grass, you should of course be cautious and keep an eye on them during drought. But if they have a pond with decent water in it, they should be able to handle the heat. If no pond is available, make sure there are a few trees around.

Here are a few things you can consider if you have cows out on grass during a drought:

  • If there isn’t enough grass in the pasture alone, start providing protein such as range cubes or grain.
  • Consider weaning the calves off of the cows early, then sending the calves to a drylot. This will help take some stress off of the cows.
  • Make a plan of how much it will take to feed your cows over a certain period of time and start accumulating feed. 
  • While culling is never a fun option, remember that you cannot afford to get attached to individual animals. Don’t continue to save underperforming cows for “one more round” next year. 
  • If culling is something you decide to do, the open cows should go first. Old cows go second, and underproducing cows third. 
  • If you have a cow herd, you should be keeping good records anyway, but especially during a drought. For an example of why records are so important, let’s say that you have a 5-year-old cow. During a normal summer, you’re supplementing her hay with protein. She should be able to keep her body condition up just fine. If you notice that her condition is beginning to worsen (keep in mind that this is a normal summer, not a drought), you’ll want to keep record of that. If her calf in the spring is a heifer, that trait will most likely be passed on to that calf and thus not one you would want to keep. 

How to Look for Overheated Cattle

If you find yourself with some extremely overheated cattle, a few things to look for include:

  • rapid breathing
  • frothing at the mouth
  • tongue hanging out (a possible sign)

The animals might also pace back and forth trying to find a cooler place. Black Angus are some of the most affected cattle, especially the bulls. Bulls tend to carry so much weight (from muscle, not fat) and have such thick skin that the heat just affects them worse than it would a steer or cow. 

As you continue to care for your cattle, you’ll run into a few unexpected events along the way. They’re not the end of the world or something you can’t handle (even if it requires getting a little help).

Just work to be prepared ahead of time. Keep plenty of hay or feed around, as well as supplies. Know the location of your emergency water sources. And do the best you can with what you have.

Take a deep breath. It’ll be a new season before you know it.

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