Prepare Now for a Dry Spring

By John B. Hall, Extension Animal Scientist, Beef, Virginia Tech.- Without a doubt, Virginia is dry even though some areas have received a little rain. Short term climate predictions are for a dry March – May and possibly early summer. I hope by writing this article, it will act as a rain dance, and by the time you read this, the information will not be needed. However, the way things are shaping up now, its time to make some plans.
calendar icon 21 April 2007
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Water is the most essential nutrient for life. Cattle can live for many days or a few weeks without food, but will die within a few days without water. Recently, lack of water as springs and ponds go dry has been a major problem for many beef producers. However, it is critical that cattle get enough water every day. If they do not, they will eat less feed, have lower performance and impaired reproduction.

Ideally, water needs to be fresh, clean and plentiful to ensure maximum intake. This spring making sure cattle get enough water should be the primary goal. Temperature of the water does not seem to affect cattle very much. Research indicates that cattle readily drink water that is 40 – 90° F. Water intake will vary with environmental temperature and dryness of the feed. Cows eating lush grass on a cool spring day will drink much less water than cows grazing the same field in the middle of summer. Water requirements for cattle are given in Table 1. A good rule of thumb is cattle need 1.5 gallon for every 100 lbs of body weight.

Table 1. Total Daily Water Intake (gallons) as Affected by Air Temperature and Feed Intake1

Gallons of water/lb drymatter (DM):
500-lb calf (12 lb DM) 4.4 4.8 5.5 6.5 7.4 10.6
750-lb preg. heifer (16.6 lb DM) 6.1 6.6 7.6 9.0 10.3 14.6
1,100-lb dry preg. Cow (20 lb DM) 7.4 8.0 9.2 10.8 12.4 17.6
1,100-lb lactating cow (22 lb DM) 8.1 8.8 10.1 11.9 13.6 19.4

1Adapted from Winchester and Morris, 1956. Water intake rates of cattle. Journal of Animal Science15:722

Producers should continue to be alert for cost share or disaster programs that assist with development of alternative water sources. Taking advantage of these opportunities will not only help the present situation, but will have a positive impact on long-term farm productivity.


Producers should check and inventory feed supplies. Many locations are short on last year’s hay. Any of last year’s hay stored outside should be used this spring. This hay will continue to deteriorate, so you might as well use it to save demands on pasture and hay fields. Shed-stored hay can be used anytime as little additional reduction in nutritional value will occur this spring and summer; although, bale weight will continue to decrease due to damage from rodents as well as normal shrink. Prices of alternative feed such as corn gluten are good right now compared top corn and other grains. Remember grain prices usually continue to increase at least through mid-summer. Therefore, locking in feed supplies now may reduce feed costs.

A forage analysis of your remaining hay will be a cost effective management procedure. By testing hay, producers can decide which nutrient, if any, need supplementing. Contact your County Agricultural Extension Agent for assistance with hay testing and interpretation of forage analysis results. They can also help producers design a supplementation program. Most likely, energy will be the nutrient that will need supplementing with hay. The VA Cooperative Extension Publications on Nutrition and Feeding of the Cow Calf Herd can help producers understand cow nutrient requirements and these publications come with nutrient requirement tables.

Energy. The energy needs of a lactating cow are 25-30% greater than a pregnant cow immediately before calving. Usually, spring grazing provides sufficient energy for mature cows and most of the energy needed by 1st calf heifers. If pasture is limited this spring, lactating cows and heifers should be supplemented with 4 to 6 lbs. of corn, corn gluten or soy hulls.

In fall calving herds, calves will have the highest nutrient needs this spring. Cows should be pregnant with declining milk production. Creep feeding or creep grazing calves may yield good returns this spring. Producers should be careful to price creep feeds carefully to ensure that the cost of creep feed is not greater than the value of the gain. See the VA Cooperative Extension Publication on Creep Feeding for more details.

Protein. Protein supplementation may be needed for lactating cows fed 1st cutting hay. This is where a forage sample will come in handy. In most cases, one pound of soybean meal or cottonseed meal will meet the needs of most cattle.

Pastures. Remember, pastures have endured considerable traffic and over-grazing in some areas. These pastures will be slow in coming back to normal production. So far, shallow soil moisture is fair so early pasture growth may be good. Use hay save pasture or delay return of cattle to pasture. Allowing spring pasture to get 4 to 6 inches high before turn out will help improve pasture regrowth in a dry spring. Limit grazing of pastures in early spring and essentially using high quality pastures as supplement may be another option.

With soil moisture low to adequate and a dry spring forecast, producers should avoid the temptation to “over fertilize” pastures to get more growth this spring. If rains are sparse this spring, heavy applications of nitrogen may cause high levels of nitrate in pastures and hay. High nitrate levels can poison cattle causing abortions and death. Split application of fertilizer (half early – half after first cutting or grazing) may be the prudent choice this spring.


If the dry spring continues, producers should employ management as well as feeding strategies. Producers with fall-calving herds should consider weaning calves this spring and grazing them on available pastures. Supplementation of calves with soy hulls or corn gluten can increases gains while not decreasing the ability of the calf to digest forage. Dry cows can then be maintained rather cheaply on low quality hay.

Spring calving cows need to calve in body condition score (BCS) 5 or better for high reproductive rates. In addition, supplementation of energy feeds is essential to keep cows from losing too much weight from calving to breeding. Producers with spring calving herds should consider early weaning of 1st calf heifers. Short-term (48-hour) calf removal at the start of the breeding season may improve the number of cows cycling and pregnancy rates during the breeding season.

April 2007

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