Time for a Back-Up Plan – Managing the Impacts of Drought in the Winter

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Retrieved: November 16, 2019, 4:29 pm

(4 minute read)

In an ideal world, producers can plan ahead for their feed requirements in the spring and be prepared well before the first snowflake falls. Unfortunately, Mother Nature doesn’t always comply. Dry conditions from the previous growing season or earlier can leave producers feeling worried about forage supplies. What if winter is longer than expected? What if next year is dry again? Coping with drought is a serious reality in many regions across Canada, however beef producers are inventive, resilient, and experienced. If the original plan isn’t working, they make adjustments.

When it comes to withstanding drought, the best defence is a good offence. Drought planning and preparation is best done in advance. While that may be little comfort to producers currently coping with dry conditions, there are many strategies that can help farmers prepare for the long-term or help them to recover their drought-ravaged resources in the coming seasons.

Plant material left ungrazed is not a waste, but rather becomes litter, a “rancher’s insurance policy.” Litter shades soil and roots, reduces soil temperatures, improves water retention and infiltration, provides nutrients to grazing plants, and minimizes moisture lost to evaporation.

  • Balance available forage supply with the number of cattle grazing.
  • Avoid overgrazing by providing effective rest for pasture plants during the growing season. This helps to maintain a resilient plant community, by allowing the canopy cover – the plant’s solar panels – to capture energy and store it in the root system.
  • Combine smaller herds into one or two larger herds that can rotationally graze. This allows more pastures the opportunity to rest.
  • Choose to graze pastures that may be better able to resist intense grazing, such as tame plant communities like crested wheat grass.
  • Manage grazing to allow for plant litter, or residue, to be left behind after grazing. Litter is sometimes referred to as a “rancher’s insurance policy” and is incredibly valuable particularly during dry conditions. Litter shades and insulates the soil surface, breaks down into valuable nutrients, reduces soil temperatures, increases water retention and infiltration, and minimizes moisture lost to evaporation.
  • Test dwindling stock water sources to ensure they are safe for cattle.

For farmers that were challenged with a dry growing season, their efforts are focused on getting the cow herd through the winter feeding period while maintaining the nutritional needs of their pregnant cows. Winter weather is unpredictable and these needs can change as cold weather fluctuates. Sometimes opportunity feed sources arise even as winter progresses and resourceful producers may seek alternative feeds and forages to fill the gaps.

  • Frozen or damaged crops, processing by-products, fruit or vegetable waste, and even weeds, can all be sources of feed for cattle in addition to more mainstream alternatives like annual cereals or cover crops.
  • Perform a feed test analysis on alternative feed ingredients to determine their nutritional value, and to rule out any potential anti-quality factors such as mycotoxins.
  • Work with a livestock extension specialist or nutritionist to balance rations and ensure non-conventional feeds are meeting the nutritional requirements of cattle particular to their age, stage, class, and condition.
  • Calculate the cost of incorporating alternative feeds using BCRC’s decision-making tool Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator.



Beef producers may consider an extended grazing season. While it may not be practical for all operations, some producers can reduce costs and labour and manage manure effectively by keeping cattle out of the corral and on the land for longer.

  • Cattle can graze crop residue, failed crops, forage on stockpiled grass, or eat bales placed out on fields. Providing conventional or alternative supplements such as pellets, grain, or by-products may be an economical way to meet nutritional demands.
  • Make sure cattle have access to fresh water and shelter. Consider infrastructure, such as fencing, windbreaks, or stock water, that needs to be developed to make extended grazing a reality. Can the infrastructure be used or re-purposed in the future?
  • Closely monitor the body condition of grazing cattle. Remember that a cow’s winter hair coat can mask her true state and a hands-on body condition score (BCS) is the best way to be sure.
  • Extended grazing can work well for mature, dry cows in good condition, but young cows, calves, pairs, or old, thin cows require careful supervision.
  • Winter grazing conditions can be highly variable. Too much snow, extremely cold temperatures, or hungry wildlife eating away at forage supplies, can throw a wrench in plans. Producers must have a back-up plan and be prepared to switch gears if necessary.

Drought is often a time to make strategic marketing decisions and free up much needed forage or pen space by deliberately moving some cattle down the trail.

  • Consider preg-checking early and selling open cows that will not provide you with a marketable calf. Producers can use our Economics of Pregnancy Testing decision support tool to determine the best option for managing open cows.
  • Cull older, thin cows while they still retain their value and well before they become a transport risk or a welfare concern.
  • If you typically retain ownership in calves, background feeders, or develop replacement heifers, look at your options and pencil out the cost of keeping the status quo.

Managing forage, water, cattle, and soils can be complicated even during good years. Hoping for the best but preparing for the worst is perhaps the only practical approach producers can take when drought has limited resources and the impending winter is uncertain. However, beef producers have been rising to the challenge for generations, and their resourcefulness and adaptability will help them.

Learn More:

Body Condition Scoring (Calculator & Information) – BeefResearch.ca

Drought Management Strategies – BeefResearch.ca

Economics of Pregnancy Testing Beef Cattle Model (Calculator) – BeefResearch.ca

Extended Grazing – BeefResearch.ca

Feed testing and Analysis for Beef Cattle (Calculator & Information) – BeefResearch.ca

Mycotoxins – BeefResearch.ca

What’s in Your (Stock) Water? (Blog) – BeefResearch.ca

Winter Feeding Cost Comparison (Calculator & Blog) – BeefResearch.ca

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