The US Drought Monitor reports exceptional and extreme drought conditions have prevailed over the last several months and it looks like it will continue through summer across areas of Oregon and the west.
Forage yield in pastures and hay fields, was significantly lower than normal in many parts of the United States. Therefore, the availability of pasture and hay for sale is substantially less. If you have not already made plans to deal with the effects of drought, now is the time.
The options presented to you today include purchasing feed, alternative feeds, selling livestock, and weaning early. Good grazing management should help keep pastures strong and more likely to survive drought and continue to produce well in upcoming years as we come out of drought.
Purchasing Feed: It is usually best to purchase hay early in the year in case people sell out. Although sometimes the price per ton goes down late in the year if there are excess hay stocks to get out of the pole barns. In a drought year use caution and do not to wait too long. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has hay prices in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, and other states along with quality guidelines for comparison shopping. The Oregon Hay and Forage Association (oregonhaygrowers.com) has a Hay Directory with dozens of hay producers and haulers.
Don’t limit your purchases to grass or grass-legume mixtures, consider using alfalfa hay as an option. Usually higher in protein and energy than grass hay or grain hay, it is sometimes available at a lower cost.
Alternative Feeds: Another option in times of forage shortages is to feed grass seed straw or grass seed screening pellets. You should feed no more than 50% grass seed products unless they are confirmed to be from low endophyte varieties. Check labels on feed bags as they have feeding instructions.
Dry standing forage that is over-mature is very low nutritional value, but cows, sheep and other ruminants can use this if they’re also fed a small amount of supplemental protein. Consider renting mature pasture and supplementing it with a small amount (5 lb. per day for non-lactating cows) of good quality alfalfa hay. Other protein source can also be utilized. You don’t have to feed the protein supplement every day. They are still used efficiently if you feed a double dose every other day, or three times the daily amount every three days. This improves both labor costs and feed efficiency.
Dry grains or Wet Brewers Grains and other by-products can be fed to decrease the amount of forage needed to winter (or summer) livestock but only if the protein content of the animal is met. Depending on the cost of grain and hay, it may or may not be more expensive. Feed grains in long feed troughs with ample room for all animals to eat at the same time and to avoid bossy cows or ewes from eating more than their share. Be careful to slowly adapt the livestock to grain diets.
Testing feeds: You should test your hay and byproducts feeds for nutritive value. New feeds or feed combinations will require new knowledge on how to balance the diets for the livestock you are feeding. The OSU Extension Service has hay probes you can borrow to sample the hay so you can send the samples to a lab for analysis. We also provide ration balancing programs.
Thin the herd: Consider selling undesirable animals. Have your veterinarian pregnancy-check your cows and ewes and get rid of the open ones when market conditions are favorable compared to feed costs.
Early weaning: Think about weaning calves and lambs early. If forage is in short supply or cow body condition is low, calves can be weaned early (before 7 or 8 months). This preserves cow energy reserves to allow for development of the new calf inside her and keep her in good shape for timely re-breeding after that calf is born
Protecting pastures: Careful grazing management now and this fall can help keep pastures strong and resilient for survival and drought recovery. The recurring theme in many forage publications points to leaving an appropriate post-harvest stubble height (2 to 4, even 6”) for the specific type of grass (ryegrasses, fescue, orchardgrass) growing in the pastures. There are at least three different reasons for this.
The above ground stubble, the crown, stores energy for plant maintenance and regrowth; ample leaf tissue remaining on a plant is used for capturing solar energy by photosynthesis for growth and replenishing energy in the crown after a growth event; and deep root growth reflects good above-ground growth and is important for reaching moisture and nutrients deep in the ground. Graze too short and you hinder the ability of plants/pasture to regrow. Many pasture forages are perennials and are only dormant, not dead, during the summer. Be careful not to over graze pastures now and they will repay you with forage later.
Economic relief is available through several drought programs administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency. Contact the Roseburg office at 541-673-6071.
More detailed explanations on the above management options for dealing with drought are included in the June issue of the new Livestock and Forages Newsletter for Western Oregon. See bit.ly/2VUqzgX.
Whether you find enough hay or not, I hope you can use the tips in this article for using feeds wisely. The suggestions should help until we get rain and forage growth.