Is it time for Plan B?

Farm Forum

It appears that at least for now, drought conditions may be rearing its ugly head again. There’s certainly still time for rains to come and turn things around, and obviously, everyone is hoping that this is exactly what happens. However, in case our wait is a little longer than we’d like, it’s prudent to start thinking about “Plan B” for livestock feed. Fortunately, we have some options available if we’re able to plan ahead. In no particular order I’ve listed a few that I think might have merit. If you’d like more information, please visit where we cover these topics in more detail.


Drylotting cows has attracted some interest recently because of the difficulty in finding additional pasture acres. I expect that there will be increased interest this year if it stays dry. The attraction for drylotting cows under normal conditions is the possibility of feeding cattle at a lower cost than the equivalent amount of pasture. Drylotting can also be a way to provide feed when there simply isn’t enough grass.

This doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. Cows could be held back longer before turnout, small sacrifice areas could be fenced off for feeding areas for cows on grass, or the plan could be to bring cattle home earlier than normal to begin feeding.

Annual forages/cover crops

In my opinion, this option looks attractive this year. Expected crop margins are somewhere between poor and not very good while the cattle market projections still look positive going forward. Diverting some acres into feed production might provide enough insurance feed to avoid over-grazing pastures, buying additional feed, or selling off cows.

The summer annuals (millets, sudangrass, and the sorghums) can be used in multiple ways depending on the crop. The hay millets are well suited for haying. Pearl millet, sudangrass and sorghum-sudan hybrids could be used for grazing, haying, or silage. Forage sorghum will work best as a silage crop. We do want to make sure the nitrate levels aren’t too high, especially if it continues to be dry and if N fertilizer was used.

Cover crops rely on fall moisture to get established, which of course is not guaranteed. I do think it’s a good idea though to start making some plans for seed, equipment, and labor right now, just in case conditions are right and cover crops could be planted. When they work, cover crops have done wonders for extending the fall grazing season when pastures are playing out and row crop residue isn’t quite ready.

Early weaning

One of the surest ways to keep an acceptable level of body condition on a cow and cut her feed intake is to get her calf weaned off earlier. Her nutrient requirements drop off tremendously once milk production stops. My experience has been that calves adjust to weaning and start on feed easier in late summer and September compared to later in the fall. Plan to provide some shade, especially if you’re weaning in July or August.

I (and everyone else) hopes and prays that the weather pattern changes in the next few weeks so that this column and the similar material that we are related to drought challenges becomes completely useless and unnecessary. If that doesn’t come true, please feel free to call me at the Watertown Regional Center at 605.882.5140, email me at, or check us out on for more information on various options.