Consider supplementation strategies to stretch limited pasture resources

(Clint Alley/ BY-ND 2.0)

A version of this article was first published at It has been edited for clarity and length.

As drought conditions continue across Western Canada, there are many parts of the U.S. that are in the same situation. Cattle ranchers are especially seeing the impacts of drought, as cows are very quickly moving home and off grass.

According to extension specialists at the North Dakota State University (NDSU) — where 30 per cent of the state is experiencing some level of drought — it is forcing some farmers and ranchers to consider their options.

Miranda Meehan, NDSU extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist, says that drought affected pastures and native ranges generally do not produce adequate forage to maintain normal stocking rates.

“Stocking rate can be adjusted by reducing the number of animals and/or the length of the grazing period. Farmers and ranchers must make the decision to sell cattle, relocate cattle to a dry lot, or provide supplemental feed to offset nutrient deficiencies in the forage, or replace a portion of pasture or range intake.”

By reducing the stocking rate, forage plants will be able to come back with less stress, which will allow the cattle that is still on pasture to have more to consume, says Meehan. There are concerns about weaning weight when stocking rates are reduced, but there seems to be only small effects to be noted.

If you make the decision not to reduce the stocking rate, Meehan says supplemental feeding is necessary in order to maintain herd productivity, and again, alleviate that grazing pressure on what little grass is there. Additionally, producers will likely see a decrease in forage production on pastures that are overstocked in the following seasons, if this is not kept in mind.

Supplementing on pasture or range can help stretch available forage and a slow farmers and ranchers to maintain “normal” stocking rates this fall. However, as specialists at NDSU warn, caution must be taken when considering supplementation strategies when the goal is to replace pasture or range intake.

As Karl Hoppe, NDSU extension livestock systems specialist explains, “its is also challenging to get cattle to consume harvested forage while on pasture.” Hope says that farmers and ranchers should provide at least 0.5 per cent of bodyweight alfalfa hay daily to replace pasture intake with alfalfa hay. It is recommended to supplement harvested forages on tame pasture over native pasture to reduce the introduction of undesirable plant species on native range.

Grain-based supplements can reduce forage intake by providing a substitution effect; however, cereal grains contain starch and sugars, which will lower ruminal pH and reduce forage digestibility, especially at high feeding levels. NDSU says this results in less energy given from the available pasture or range to the animal. Therefore, cereal grain supplements should be limited to 0.25 per cent of bodyweight to minimize the negative effects on how much of that forage you can use.

As well, unlike protein supplements, energy supplements should be fed daily in order to keep that herd performance up.

Fibrous by-product feeds, such as soy hulls, wheat middlings, corn gluten feed, distillers grains, beet pulp, and brewers grains, contain low levels of starch and sugars — but high total digestible nutrient values have less negative impacts on forage intake and digestibility. However, fibrous by-product feeds should be supplemented at levels greater than 0.6 per cent of bodyweight daily to replace pasture or range intake.

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