Drylotting cows as a drought management strategy

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS, S.D. – During drought, when culling cows is not the most cost effective option, drylotting may be, explained Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist.

“Drylotting allows ranchers to hold on to productive cows until it rains again and pasture conditions improve. Drylotting also facilitates early weaning, which saves additional feed,” he said.

Rusche explained that when it comes to matching livestock inventories with available forage, culling does solve the problem of not enough forage, however it is at a cost to the long-run financial health of the ranch. “Replacing the culled cows almost always costs more money than their value as culls, especially if large numbers of cows are being shipped. All the fixed overhead costs, such as family living or labor expense, loan obligations or long-term lease expenses remain, only with fewer calves to sell,” he said.

Suggested drylot diets

Research data from a number of universities shows that cow-calf pairs do well on a wide variety of diets, either by limit feeding or by allowing unlimited access to feed.

Table 1 provides examples of diets used by North Dakota State University and by the University of Nebraska.

“These diets rely on relatively cheap sources of roughage combined with grain or by-product feeds,” Rusche said.

Other considerations for feeding pairs in a drylot include:

• Minimize hay waste with ad-lib feeding.

• Manage bunks carefully to prevent acidosis or other digestive upsets when limit feeding.

• Provide sufficient bunk space for both the cow and her calf, as much as 3 to 4 feet per pair.

• Manage pens to reduce fly pressure and the incidence of mud.

• Providing shade may be beneficial in reducing heat stress in the calves.

• If newly purchased cattle are brought into the yard, keep pairs isolated to avoid respiratory disease.

“The market for feedstuffs is a bright spot comparing this year with 2012,” Rusche said. “Feed grains and forages are considerably cheaper now than four years ago improving the feasibility of alternative strategies such as drylotting.”

Ultimately, the right answer for one ranch may be quite different from another depending upon facilities, finances, and other considerations.

More detailed information about drought management can be found by visiting