Feeding cattle during and after a drought

During a cattle information day hosted by the Berg Farmers’ Association in Barkly West, Johan Mouton, manager of research and development for ruminants at RCL Foods, shared some advice on how to manage feeding for livestock after a drought.

Over the long term, according to Mouton, it is best to stick to moderate stocking rates instead of constantly utilising grazing lands at maximum capacity.
Photo: Sabrina Dean

A drought does not change how much feed a cow requires to produce a calf, says Johan Mouton, manager of research and development for ruminants at RCL Foods.

“You, as the farmer, have to adapt to make it possible for the cow to remain productive.”
Standards published by the Agricultural Research Council indicate that a dry cow needs 8kg of dry material a day to survive. “I like to say that to produce a weaner calf, a farmer needs a cow, a bull and about 5t of grass,” he says.

Management principles
Mouton says farmers often ask him whether it is necessary to use a hay ring.

“We did the calculation based on a trial Cattlein which we measured hay consumption with and without the use of a hay ring. Without a hay ring, feed consumption, including waste, amounted to 13,5kg/animal/ day. The moment we started using hay rings, consumption fell to 9,5kg/day.”

Another common question is whether to control the movement of animals to limit the area on which they can graze.

He says that for every 2km an animal walks, its energy requirement increases 5% to 10%. When animals are being fed poor-quality hay, like wheat straw, or when they are grazing on lands with poor nutritional quality, their feed intake increases exponentially.

Francois Deacon of the University of the Free State collared cattle to collect research data. He found that free-ranging cattle on good grazing walk, on average, 4km to 6km per day to feed themselves. When the feed starts diminishing, they walk up to 14km a day.

But the catch is that the energy requirement increases as the feed diminishes, so it is best, especially during or after a drought, to limit the animals’ movement,” says Mouton.

Feeding creep feed
He has also frequently been asked whether farmers should start introducing creep feed to calves earlier in order to take some pressure off of lactating cows.

“Significant intake of creep feed usually only happens when the calf is around five months old,” he replies. “If your aim is to spare your cow, rather spend that money on a production lick.”

A production lick will not only help improve the cow’s milk production, but will also help her maintain her condition so she has a better chance of conceiving during the next breeding season, he adds.

Another management principle relates to shelter from the wind or shade from the sun.
An animal’s ideal temperature comfort zone is around 20°C. Every degree it shifts outside of this results in the energy requirement increasing 2%. If the temperature drops from 15°C to 0°C at night, it amounts to an additional 800g of maize you need to feed a weaner calf just to enable it to keep warm without losing condition.

“It is those freezing cold fronts that really cause an animal to lose weight quickly, so providing shelter and feed can help,” he says.

All the other normal management principles also apply, such as guarding against parasites, especially when keeping animals in kraals, providing clean drinking water, and eliminating non-productive animals.

Risk management
Farmers should always be busy preparing for the next drought, says Mouton.

“Risk management becomes an important part of this. When looking at your farm, factors like resource composition, climate and grazing capacity are givens. You cannot control those. All that you can control is your stocking rate, your resource utilisation pattern, and what you can feed from a bag.”

Carrying capacity within geographical areas varies widely, but he says the stocking rates published by the agriculture department for a particular area are a good starting point.

However, farmers should be careful about how they calculate stocking rates.

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking one [mature] stock unit is equal to one cow. If your farm’s carrying capacity is 1 MSU/5ha, and you have 1 000ha of land, a simple calculation would suggest you can carry 200 head of mature cattle,” says Mouton.

“My experience shows that in a weaner calf system, a productive cow easily equals 1,6 MSU.”

This would imply that in the example given above, the farm’s carrying capacity would be 130 to 140 animals for a herd of breeding cows, instead of 200.

High stocking rates can affect profitability over the long term. A study done by Grootfontein Agricultural College on farms in the Karoo found those farmers who had maintained moderate stocking rates made a fair income, averaging slightly higher or lower in good or bad years.

Meanwhile, farmers who overstocked made a lot more or a lot less in good or bad years. Over a 10-year period, however, there was a definite downward trend in the net income of the farmers who had overstocked.

Drivers for success
Mouton says the livestock farmer who does well sustainably over the long term is one who puts away enough feed to see a herd through winter.

“There is a principle I would like to instil in all livestock farmers, based on an intensive system that relies on providing long periods of rest to grazing lands,” he says.

“Basically, every hectare that you don’t utilise during summer, represents a hectare of feed that will be available for winter.”

Mouton suggests implementing a rotational grazing programme that will allow grazing lands to rest as much as possible during the critical growing season within a geographical area.

“The root capacity of a portion of veld that was grazed during the growing season will only be 10% of that of a veld that has rested in that period.

“Once it is overgrazed, livestock then also start digging out and damaging the weak roots.”
Grazing that has been rested for the entire growing season, by contrast, has tremendous reserves.

This allows it to be grazed through the winter and into the next growing season without causing damage, Mouton says.

However, he adds, implementing such a system takes time, and it should be introduced gradually and after taking into account a farm’s specific circumstances.

“In summary, my message to farmers is to always manage your resources with the emphasis on producing sufficient roughage for the winter months.

“In drought, it comes down to putting a premium on the upkeep of your productive animals. If you have a resilient herd, the animals can lose up to 12% body weight without any negative reproduction effects.”

During summer, farmers should provide cows with a phosphate lick, he says, and in winter the animals must be given a protein lick that also contains phosphate.

“It might be cheaper to supply a lick that is low in phosphate, but keep in mind that the R150 that you might save per cow by buying a cheaper lick, might end up costing you that cow producing a weaner calf that could have earned you R6 500,” Mouton says.

Contact Johan Mouton via email [email protected].