While recent rains were welcome, more than 34 percent of Alabama still faces abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions. This has many livestock producers worried about providing their animals with enough to eat and drink.
Landon Marks, an Alabama Extension animal science regional agent, said some northeastern Alabama areas are starting to see effects of the abnormally dry weather.
“Water in main streams, ponds and wells are currently at normal levels, but some smaller streams in pastures are dry at this time,” Marks said. “At this point, livestock producers need to assess their stocking density and forage availability. This will allow them to plan for potential supplementation or selling of livestock so the forages meet the needs of the animals grazing.”
The following are several things livestock producers should be aware of when facing drought conditions.
Meet Animals’ Water Needs
Cattle can survive for days without food and weeks to months with limited food. However, Soren Rodning, the Alabama Extension veterinarian, said when it comes to water, it is a more critical need for livestock.
“Cattle can only survive a few days without consuming water because of the limited amount of water in their rumen,” Rodning, who is also an associate professor in Auburn University’s Department of Animal Sciences, said. “This water quickly runs out. Cattle must have access to fresh, clean water on a daily basis.”
Check water sources in pastures on a daily basis to ensure animals have enough clean, fresh water. Adult cattle consume 10 to 25 gallons of water per day. A lactating animal’s water requirements may increase by 50 percent during hot weather. If using watering tanks, producers might want to install float levels. This way water levels can be checked from a distance rather than having to walk or drive to the tank to check.
When forage and water are limited in a pasture, cattle are much more likely to escape fencing in search of food and water. Producers should check fences regularly for downed or damaged places. Rodning said this is especially important if the pastures border roads or highways.
Many forages become limited during drought. In the search for food, animals may graze on plants not normally eaten. Some of these plants, such as perilla mint and wild cherry trees, are toxic and can cause death. Other plants, not normally toxic, may contain concentrated amounts of nitrates and become harmful.
Kim Mullenix, an Alabama Extension beef specialist, said nitrate poisoning is likely during time of drought.
“Nitrates can accumulate during periods of stress in plant growth,” Mullenix said. “In the Southeast, problems are most likely to be encountered with warm-season grass crops such as Bermudagrass or a summer annual forage.” Mullenix is an assistant professor of animal science at Auburn.
For more information about nitrate poisoning, read the Extension publication on Nitrate Poisoning of Cattle in Alabama, ANR-0112.
Protection from Heat
An important step for producers is protecting livestock from the extreme heat. Temperatures above 80 degrees F, mixed with high humidity and direct sun exposure, can cause problems. Rodning said livestock must have an adequate amount of shade.
“If pastures lack wooded areas, producers may need to construct open shelters to give animals a shady resting spot,” Rodning said. “Provide enough shade to allow animals to spread out and cool off. If animals are too crowded in the shade, they will not be able to cool themselves sufficiently.”
Controlling parasites is important during droughts. Proper control reduces the stress and nutritional needs of livestock. As pastures dry up during the summer, the numbers of worm larvae living on the blades of grass will greatly decrease. However, as cattle graze, they still may ingest some parasite larvae. The parasites will then grow to the adult stage in the animal’s gastrointestinal tract. This is particularly true when cattle graze more closely to the ground.
The United States Drought Monitor website is a useful tool to stay informed about dry conditions in the state and region. Alabama Extension has several publications that can assist producers during times of drought:
• Water Requirements of Beef Cattle, ANR-2436
• Drinking Water for Livestock, ANR-2381
• Stocking Rates for Cow-Calf Operations in Alabama, ANR-2554.