January 2017
Farm & Field

Dealing with Drought

Tips for Livestock Producers

Drought has made this a tough year for many livestock producers in southern Appalachia. Drought-affected pastures rarely produce adequate amounts of forage. Hay is in short supply and what’s available tends to be of below-average quality. Drought-stressed plants tend to be nutrient deficient, especially in protein, phosphorus and vitamin A.


How Does Drought Affect Nutrient Quality?

Drought has forced many cattle producers to start feeding hay early. As such, hay quantity and quality may be lacking this late in the feeding season.


Drought conditions affect nutrient quality in a variety of ways. First, because there is very little or no new growth, animals only have access to older, less-desirable plants in the pasture. Second, the nutritional quality of forages available is compromised by the stresses put on the plant by lack of water.

Drought stress negatively affects plant metabolic functions, resulting in low mineral and vitamin levels. Of these, phosphorus and vitamin A are usually most pronounced. Drought-stressed plants also do not metabolize nitrogen into proteins. Consequently, these plants contain low protein levels. But the second negative result is the accumulation of nitrates. Excessive levels of nitrates (over 1.5 percent) are toxic to livestock. Plants that are most susceptible to the accumulation of toxic levels of nitrates include sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, pearl millet, corn, wheat and oats. Some weeds are also known to accumulate nitrates. These are pigweed, smartweed, ragweed, lambsquarter, goldenrod, nightshades, bindweed, Canada thistle and stinging nettle. Be on the lookout for these weeds in your hay and pastures.

Symptoms of nitrate poisoning are labored breathing, staggering gait and sudden death. The membranes of the eyes and gums are bluish due to lack of oxygen and the blood is a chocolate-brown color, but turns to bright red when exposed to the air.

The key to avoiding nitrate poisoning is to have all hay forage tested and request the optional test for nitrate levels. Contact your local Quality Co-op representative or local cooperative Extension agent for more information about this forage analysis and the dangers of nitrate toxicity.


Dealing with Drought Conditions

Unfortunately, drought forces producers to make hard decisions. Options include early weaning, moving animals to additional pastures, purchasing supplemental feed and finally reducing herd numbers. In some cases, a combination of each of these strategies is in order.

A lactating female’s nutritional needs can be cut by roughly one-third just by weaning. In commercial situations, it may make sense to wean early and sell light-weight calves rather than pay feed costs required to maintain lactating females and/or creep feeding growing livestock. You will need to calculate the value of your market animals in relation to the cost of feed to carry them to normal market weight to decide if this is a valid option for you.

If the option is available, you may want to look into the possibility of moving livestock to alternate grazing areas such as hay fields and harvested crop fields. If your hay fields are too stunted to harvest as hay, allow your livestock to graze what is available instead.

At some point, you will have to purchase at least some supplemental feed to maintain your livestock. One feedstuff all cattle need is hay. While high hay prices may lead you to look for alternatives, hay cannot be totally excluded from the diet. Use of feeds and supplement blocks can help to maintain productivity, especially when hay or pasture quality is suspect.


Tips for Stretching Your Feed Dollar

A few tips that can help stretch your feed budget:

  1. Reduce the amount of wasted feed. If your animals tend to waste a lot of hay or feed, now is the time to remedy this. Solutions may include purchasing or making hay feeders to prevent animals from walking on the hay or building trays under hay feeders or troughs to catch dropped hay or feed.

  2. Deworm all animals and treat for coccidia. Don’t let internal parasites place added strain on your livestock.

  3. Cull unproductive animals. Now is the time to cull those marginal animals you were going to keep around for one more year. Any animal not meeting the production goals you’ve set isn’t paying for its feed.

  4. Always provide a complete mineral/vitamin supplement such as SWEETLIX 6% CopperHead to deliver recommended levels of phosphorus, copper, selenium and vitamin A. Mineral-deficiency lowers feed-conversion efficiency. More efficient feed conversion allows you to stretch your feed resources further.

Remember, it is vital to provide supplementation to pregnant females under these conditions. Mineral needs are increased due to pregnancy or lactation and drought-stressed forages are more likely to be deficient in nutrients such as phosphorus and vitamin A.

There are many supplement options available for all livestock species. Contact your local Quality Co-op for more information about how SWEETLIX Livestock Supplements can fit into your feeding program.


In summary, drought conditions this summer and fall have resulted in low-quality hay and pastures for a variety of reasons. When feeding low-quality forages, nutritional supplements are necessary to maintain reproduction and growth. Supplements pay for themselves in added production when used properly in these situations. For more information about SWEETLIX supplement products and information to help you decide how they fit in your management situation, visit www.sweetlix.com.


Jackie Nix is an animal nutritionist with Ridley Block Operations (www.sweetlix.com). You can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 1-800-325-1486 for questions or to learn more about SWEETLIX mineral and protein supplements for cattle, goats, horses, sheep and wildlife. References available upon request.