Managing through Drought

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By Dr. Bart Lardner (PhD), professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in Cow-Calf and Forage Systems

The opportunity to grow the beef herd during the prolonged drought in huge areas has, at best, been a frustrating situation.  Solutions for a producer's decision-making process include gathering information, consultation and plotting a course of action.  The action taken will depend and be influenced by the availability of resources.  Such items include capability to grow cereal crops for pasture or greenfeed, ability to temporarily fence cropland, ability to haul water and the data to make adjustments to the enterprise for the long run.

Most will have started this decision process and, while the ultimate action taken is solely dependent on the operator, there is information that could make the feeding of your beef herd easier.  Included in this approach will be to logically think about each segment or portion of the feeding schedule, running from pasture grazing to summer seeded cereals.

Emergency Pasture Options

Cold weather during the spring has delayed pasture development and along with the drought has made pasture shortages a certainty in areas with prolonged drought, and marginal in many other areas of the province.  Even with early rains it is unlikely perennial pastures will last through to fall or early September.  Annual cereals, utilized as annual pasture or greenfeed are real options for producers during times of limited rainfall.

Options to extend and complement pasture usage involve seeding winter wheat, fall rye, barley, spring wheat or oats for July grazing.  Cereals as annual crops show the greatest potential for grazing, particularly winter wheat and fall rye, which could potentially last into the fall grazing season if managed properly.  These two crops tiller upon grazing and will remain vegetative in the establishment year before being vernalized or changed by the cold weather.  Stocking rates on annual forages need to be adjusted to reduce trampling losses and prevent cereals from heading and losing quality.  Rotational grazing may be useful to achieve the required grazing pressure and allow for plant recovery following grazing.

Cereals can also be used as winter-feed supplies.  Due to the overgrazing of pastures, some producers have been forced to graze their hay lands as an emergency measure.  This places tremendous pressure on the upcoming winter feed supplies.  In periods of drought, lower than normal hay production can be expected, particularly for hay land in which a perennial grass is the dominating forage species.  Perhaps the best alternative source of feed in these trying circumstances is to grow cereals as a forage crop harvested as greenfeed.  Cereals tend to produce higher yields with medium forage quality as compared to grass hays under drought conditions.  The agronomics of growing cereals as a forage crop is not complicated.  Seeding of cereals should be done in the months of June to mid-July to allow for cutting and baling before frost in the fall.  The cereal crop that best makes a forage crop is oats.  Oats is a low input crop that is well suited to many areas of the province and has good acceptability by cattle.  Other cereals put up for forage (or silage) include barley, triticale, and in some cases salvaged wheat crops.  Barley is more drought tolerant than oats. Therefore it is preferred in the brown and dark brown soil zones.  An important consideration in producing barley for a forage supply is to seed smooth-awned varieties.  It should be noted that if access to certified seed is a problem, common seed could be used as an alternative.

Just about any cereal crop variety that can be baled or silaged is better than no feed at all.

A decision on feeding your cowherd during periods of drought starts now as an emergency measure and is an individual specific process.  If pasture and hay supplies are short, and the culling of cows has reached a critical point, producers must consider all options. 

For help with your drought strategy in feeding your cowherd, please contact your local Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist with Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Agriculture or the ministry’s Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377. You can also email Dr. Bart Lardner at

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By Dr. Bart Lardner (PhD), professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program Chair in Cow-Calf and Forage Systems

Recent rains in some parts of Saskatchewan are a welcome blessing for both grain and livestock producers with the moisture stimulating crop and pasture growth. Cattle producers should be aware, however, that pastures that have been subjected to the type of dry conditions that we have experienced over past years will not return to normal productivity within the next two to three months irrespective of the amount of moisture we receive.

Awareness of pasture and cattle management can help speed up this recovery process.  If possible, note the previous time and use of grazed areas.  During drought, plants are more tolerant of grazing later in the season, therefore stock pastures light versus moderate.  Plants are more water stressed therefore turnout later. 

Low soil moisture is a major problem and limits plant growth and forage yields.  There is limited fibrous root growth in grasses; thus, an inability to reach moisture.  Over time, species growing in the pasture shift to weedy, shallow rooted and less productive types.  This drought impact has a greater effect on coarse soils.

Cattle  can experience reduced gains but increased energy use in search of sufficient forage.  Producers will note poor body condition by fall, more open cows and conception rates affected along with lower calf gains.

Pasture strategies include:

  • Manage for litter. It has the capacity to absorb any rain or moisture a pasture will receive. During drought, grazing can have a negative effect on forage growth; if spring growth started, early grazing will further stress plant; reduce energy reserves.
  • Reduce stocking levels to balance livestock needs with available forage. Allow light use of the forage by cattle, which will conserve the plants level of vigour and litter. Rest or defer grazing in fields heavily grazed last season.
  • Graze first the fields deferred last year. Carryover is critical. Use livestock to graze poor hay and annual crops.
  • Graze crested wheatgrass (a drought tolerant species) litter until mid-summer.
  • Maximize safe use of spring tame pastures and use of stubble fields after harvest; contract with neighbours for available chaff. A fertility program in wet years is paying off dividends now!

Management strategies for cattle grazing drought-stressed pastures include managing grazing pressure on pastures, creep feeding calves, early weaning programs and selective culling.

Managing grazing pressure is in effect adopting the principles of a rotational grazing program. The idea is to confine cattle to a small part of the total pasture area to allow additional time for the rest of the pasture to grow. This can be accomplished using electric fencing or by movement of water source and salt licks and minerals to that area of the pasture less frequented by the cattle.  If possible, care should be taken not to overgraze any one area of the pasture. Animals should be rotated once grazing conditions no longer meet the animal’s needs.

Creep feeding provides additional feed for the calves, taking pressure off the cows to supply milk to the calves. This practice can reduce the weight loss on the cow, leaving her as much as 50 lbs. heavier in the fall when grazed under poor pasture conditions. Creep feeding can be accomplished by providing a supplementary energy and protein source to the calves in an area where mature animals can’t access. Creep rations should contain 70 to 74 per cent TDN and 13 to 16 per cent crude protein (dry matter basis). Good quality whole oats are readily consumed by calves and are considered nutritionally adequate. Most sources of commercial grain screening pellets can also be used as a creep feed as well as other cereal grain and protein supplements. There are also numerous commercial creep feeds on the market. The creep feed can be fed in feed bunks, troughs or self-feeders that have been modified to allow calf entry but deny access to the cows. An opening 16 to 18 inches wide and 3 to 3.5 feet high will accomplish this. Expected consumption will vary with size of calf, pasture conditions and milk production in the cows.

Early weaning is an important management tool not only to help alleviate grazing pressure but also to allow cows to develop deposit body fat or condition prior to winter and to allow them to be in proper condition for calving and subsequent rebreeding. In times of pasture shortage, early weaning and feeding the calves directly is cheaper than feeding the cows to maintain milk production. Cows nursing calves on poor pastures will lose body condition. Thins cows going into the winter are expensive to feed and are ideal candidates for calving and rebreeding problems if they remain in poor condition. Calves can be weaned as young as 100 days providing they are given access to a feed that meets their needs. Providing a creep ration to early-weaned calves is an idea method to meet the nutritional needs of these calves for growth. Talk to your livestock agrologist or feed company about early weaning feeding programs.

If you are still uncertain that these steps will help stretch your summer grazing program, you have to consider an intensive culling program. Culling now rather than later will save grass and allow pastures to recover and retains the option of feeding the cull cows in dry lot for sale or return to pasture when conditions substantially improve.

Alternative feeds can be a good option to supplement or replace conventional hay-based feeding programs. However, when choosing alternative feed supplies it is critical take into consideration all limitations and factors related to its use such as: cost/benefits relative to other energy and protein sources, availability, nutritive value, their ability to substitute functionally forage, presence of other substances, health problems, etc.

Working with your nutritionist, extension specialists and/or consultants will help you make a better evaluation on the options available and determine how is the best way to incorporate the alternative feed choose on the ration in order to meet the livestock needs.

Alternative forage sources

Forage substitutes are more difficult to source and usually expensive. The following are some possibilities that can be considered.

Dehydrated alfalfa pellets and cubes

Alfalfa cubes have coarser material and since cubes retain a longer fibre length and a larger particle size they can be used as the only source of forage for dairy cattle. However, adaptation time is recommended. To minimize problems, it is suggested to also feed the cows with at least five pounds of long hay.

Dehydrated pellets can be used as a protein supplement and it is recommended they be fed with another forage source to maintain required effective fiber in the ration since pelleted forage material is quite fine.

Grain crop hay and silage

Annual cereal and oilseed crops have been used to replace hay during the periods of drought in Canada over the years. The most commonly grown alternatives are rye, wheat, barley, oats and canola. Usually cut at mid-dough stage good quality cereal hay or silage is relatively similar to good grass or grass/legume hay in energy and protein content.

Other options include triticale (both spring and fall types), sorghum, sudangrass and hybrid sorghum-sudangrass.

Special attention is required to the nitrate and prussic acid levels if you decide to use annuals as an option of feeding under adverse conditions as drought. Depending on the levels found some adjustments on the ration will be required.

Native grass hay

Native hays vary widely in nutritional value. However, when it is cut at the proper maturity stage, they can be comparable to tame grass hays in protein and energy content. It is also recommended to do a feed test prior to feeding.

Grains, Grain Co-Products and Screenings


Grains may also be an alternative, used to replace part of the roughage of the diet. However, in order to avoid reducing feed intake and ruminal acidosis, the levels of forage replacement should be based on digestion characteristics of the grain used.

The most commonly used grains in feed rations are:

  • Barley: intermediate in energy and protein. Can be used as the only grain in the ration as well as to replace part of the roughage of the diet.
  • Oats: contains less energy compared to barley and wheat. Oat protein content is comparable with barley grain. Can be a good replacement to roughage.
  • Wheat: high energy and protein content. Problems with acidosis can occur when it is managed as the only grain at very high levels in the ration.
  • Rye: similar to wheat in nutritive value. Due the lack of palatability the feed intake can be compromised, thus it is not recommended that cereal represents levels above 40 to 50 per cent of the grain portion of the ration. Rye is also susceptive to ergot infestation which can be avoided if it is cut at the milk and dough stage or before ergots bodies form. 

Grain Co-products

By-products can be a good option to supplement conventional forage based feeding programs during periods of shortage. However, by-products can vary in nutrient and moisture depending on the source of grain and the methods used for ethanol and DDGS production. Testing each load for nutrient content will help producers make properly cost/benefits evaluations and necessary ration adjustments.

  • Dried Distillers Grains with Soluble (DDGS) – DDGS is a co-product of the dry-mill ethanol industry which can be an excellent source of energy and protein. Although corn is the major grain used in alcohol production, wheat, barley and sorghum may also be used. Depending on the grain base used, DDGS can reach CP levels averaging 27 to 40 per cent with highest averages for wheat and lowest for sorghum bases. The energy values are similar to barley grains what makes this a promising ingredient to replace barley grain at certain levels in the diet.
  • Canola meal: relatively high in CP (38 to 40 per cent) but moderate in energy contents. Commonly used as a protein supplement. Canola meal can be used as an alternative to soybean meal.
  • Brewers grains: residue resulting from the brewing process of barley, malt and other cereal with medium to low energy and high protein contents.

Grain screenings

The screenings consist of small, broken or shrunken kernels of grains and other materials such as weed seeds, chaff, hulls and some dust. Grain screenings can be a good source of both energy and protein. However, there is a considerable variation in its composition and nutrition value depending on the source. Depending on the proportion used in the total diet digestive upsets may occur because the characteristics of some ingredients.


Good quality straw can be a good source of energy. However, straw is low in protein (only four to five per cent). Straw is useful in maintenance or wintering rations for cows and sheep if properly supplemented with adequate source of energy, protein along with minerals and vitamins. Although all cereal straws can be fed, oat straw is preferable for cow rations due its palatability and highest energy contents followed by barley straw and wheat straw.  If hay is not available, straw can be used.

For help with your drought strategy in feeding your cow herd, please contact your local Livestock and Feed Extension Specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture or the ministry’s Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377. You can also email Dr. Bart Lardner at

This following is posted on Beef Cattle Research Council's website:

Recurring drought is a natural part of the climate in many areas of Canada and creates a challenge when managing grazing and forage resources. Although droughts are often unpredictable, they are inevitable, meaning they are often at the back of every producer’s mind. Long-term farm and ranch management must include planning for and consideration of how drought will affect the entire system – including plants, livestock and water sources.

Eight tips for drought management

    • When managing through a drought, consider combining groups of animals to encourage grazing of less desirable plants and grazing pastures with species that are more tolerant of increased grazing pressure. It is important to monitor for toxic or poisonous plants, which are more likely to be grazed during dry years.
    • Sources of water for grazing animals can quickly become limited or unavailable during drought periods. It is recommended that any pastures that could possibly run out of water be grazed first. In some cases, it may become necessary to use a portable stock water supply in order to continue grazing a forage source where water has become limited.
    • Producers should consider pumping water from the source to a trough to help extend water supplies, maintain water quality and prevent cattle from getting stuck in watering sites that are drying up.
    • Stock water quality can deteriorate rapidly. Even if water quantity appears adequate, poor water quality can quickly cause health and production problems and even death. Test stock water sources frequently when animals are grazing.
    • Extended rest periods and increased recovery times are necessary to protect plants during dry periods.
    • Consider planting annual crops, supplementing pastures with alternate feeds, or creep feeding, to help extend grazing resources. Feed testing is an important consideration during dry conditions.
    • Drought management strategies should be a permanent part of every grazing plan. The benefits of rotational grazing and managing pastures to retain litter (plant residue) are especially evident during drought.
    • Drought plans should identify the order of groups or classes of livestock to be de-stocked, if necessary, and at what point each group will be moved if the drought persists.

For more resources, click here.

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Agriculture has posted several producer resources for dry conditions. Click here to be directed to the government's website.

Drought information and resources on the SSGA webite, click here.