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What To Do When You Run Out of Feed

One of the most common problems I’ve been seeing lately is folks running out of forage for the number of animals they have. The problem grows when drought is factored in. Graziers have questions about what they should do in these cases, and Aaron Berger has some answers.

There are three main options to reduce stocking rates: supplement/substitute feed, ship cattle to non-drought areas and sell cattle. Photo credit Troy Walz.


Current drought conditions across many parts of Nebraska and across the country are prompting cattle producers to consider options for reducing stocking rates on rangeland and pasture as we look forward to this spring and summer. There are three main options to reduce stocking rates: supplement/substitute feed, ship cattle to non-drought areas and sell cattle.

Supplement/Substitute Feed

Feeding cattle on pasture can be an option to reduce the amount of forage that cattle are grazing.

This option is likely best suited for use on perennial planted pastures where non-native species such as smooth brome, orchard grass, fescue and wheatgrass varieties have been established. These species tend to be more resilient should over grazing occur.

Research at the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research and Development Center has shown that feeding a mixture of modified wet distillers grains and ground cornstalks in a 30/70 ratio (dry matter basis) replaced grazed grass on approximately a 1:1 basis. In this study, cow-calf pairs were delivered 15.7 lbs of dry matter of the feed mixture daily. Feeding high levels of low-quality forage, (ground cornstalks) with the modified distillers grains is necessary to reduce intake of grass. The study, “Supplementing Cow-Calf Pairs Grazing Smooth Bromegrass,” is available in the 2015 Nebraska Beef Cattle Report.

Drylot feeding of cow-calf pairs, replacement heifers or yearlings is another option to replace grazed forage

Removing cattle from drought stressed rangelands and pasture will help to minimize damage to grass plants, allowing full recovery more quickly when the drought breaks. Several long-term studies have been conducted on drylot feeding of cow-calf pairs by the University of Nebraska. If this is an option you’re considering, check out Drylotting Beef Cows – A Drought Management Strategy where you’ll find more information on what and how much to feed.

Do yourself a favor and do the math before you decide to feed through drought or forage shortages. Dallas Mount’s simple steps for getting over sunk-cost and status quo bias are a great first step. The process will help you think about alternatives that will also help you create the business you want.

Sunk-Cost and Status Quo Bias – Getting Over These Hurdles to Success

Ship Cattle to another Location

Often when one part of the country is experiencing drought conditions, there are other parts of the country that are not. When considering shipping of cattle to other locations for grazing, carefully take into account all of the factors involved. Risks associated with cattle performance, death loss and biosecurity for breeding cattle returning to the operation, as well as transportation costs and pasture rent should all be evaluated.

Sell Cattle

There are several factors that producers should consider when deciding which cattle to retain and which cattle to sell. Here are a few to consider:

• What are the plans and the outlook for the business?
• Which enterprises in the operation have been profitable in the last several years?
• How would selling cattle impact the cost structure of the business?
• Is now a time to make changes to the enterprises that make up the operation?
• Within the herd, what age groups and classes of cattle will likely depreciate the most over the next 2-4 years? Which ones are most likely to appreciate in value?
• What age groups of females retained now would best position the operation to take advantage of anticipated higher calf prices when the drought breaks?
• What are the tax implications for selling cattle due to drought conditions and what opportunities may that provide?

Under drought conditions, selling breeding cattle early usually will result in higher prices than waiting until many other producers are marketing cattle also. Strategically thinking through which cattle to keep and which ones to sell can help you position yourself to make the best of a challenging situation.

Want more?

Visit the University of Nebraska Extension Drought Management Planning page for drought-related information on animal, range/pasture and forage management, and government assistance options.

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Aaron Berger
Aaron Berger
Aaron Berger is a Beef Systems Extension Educator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He works out of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. His areas of focus are beef systems for sustainability, profitability, health and well-being, quality and wholesomeness.

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