Because most of the states hit by the 2012 drought were in the corn-producing areas of the country, serious feed shortages will occur for most livestock operations this winter. Yet, in spite of this ominous forecast, beef cattle producers likely will rely on the ability of their cattle to adapt to a variety of diets and ingredients. However, feeding strategies must be reviewed before considering use of drought-stricken crops and forages.

For cow-calf operations, this winter will represent an opportunity to incorporate research-based discoveries when managing feed offerings to wintering beef cows. Cow-calf producers planning to have sufficient forage and grain inventories for winter in northern climates must consider stocking approximately 1,000 pounds of hay per cow during winter. This is approximately one large round bale per cow.

Given the feed shortages, it is even more important than usual to avoid hay wastage during feeding. When delivering hay to cows, producers must ensure that only the hay that will be consumed over a 24-hour period is delivered in a feeder. Data from the University of Minnesota beef research facilities at Grand Rapids and Rosemount indicate that hay wastage is kept to within 5 percent when cows are fed long hay in a round bale feeder or ground hay in a feed bunk. Greater losses (over 18 percent) are expected when large bales are simply rolled or shredded onto the ground. Additional hay waste reductions occurred when limiting time access to hay feeder. Limited access by cows to round bale feeders for 14 hours reduced hay waste further.

Because hay may not be readily available in certain regions, some producers are looking into alternatives for securing a forage supply in support of wintering beef cows or growing backgrounding cattle.

Drought-stricken corn or other forage fields and late-season planting of wheat or triticale provide possible alternatives to short hay supplies. Each option must be considered carefully; the former may lead to increased nitrate or other toxin concentrations in forage, and the latter is dependent on the extent of early drought recovery. Grazing or feeding winter wheat or triticale hay may lead to nitrate toxicosis, acidosis or grass tetany. Therefore, monitoring nitrate concentrations, providing sufficient calcium and magnesium mineral supplementation, and supplementing cattle with hay or straw may be needed to avoid these potential issues.

For more information on feed supply management, visit http://www.extension.umn.edu/beef/.