Manage cattle for dry year

Writer: Dr. Joe Paschal, 361-265-9203,

My cattle wintered well, and I had a nice calf crop this spring, but with the heat and humidity of summer, I am anxious for a nice rain. The grass is crispy in the middle of the pastures even though there is still quite a bit of standing green. Some of you are in better shape than I am, but some of you are worse. I saw quite a bit of hay being fed in the late spring and early summer, which is never a good sign!

The past few years have been good ones for me with about-average rainfall in 2014 and 2016 (29 inches) and more than 40 inches in 2015. It allowed my pastures to recover and, with my grazing system, gave me some flexibility. However, like most of you, I am always looking for a rain, and this year has been no different. Right now, my rainfall total is at 6 inches or so for the year, about 4 inches short of the long-term average for this time of year, and it is beginning to show.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the northern part of my county (Jim Wells) is abnormally dry as are the counties above me and in the Rio Grande Valley and a stretch to the northeast of San Antonio. Of course, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and a few counties in other southern states are dry, too.

Beefmaster cow in Starr County (near Rio Grande City). Photo by Dr. Joe Paschal

When we were in the last big drought in 2012, I penned up my cows in a trap and fed them for 144 days. I had decided that allowing them to remain on the pasture was just going to ruin the standing forage and reduce the chances for quick regrowth when we did get a rain. I bought hay from about 200 miles away and mixed a basic ration that I fed every day, hot or cold, dry or wet. It cost me about $2.40/head per day, but I kept the herd of young and middle-aged cows intact and had a good calf crop. It was the first major feed expense I had in several years since I quit winter supplementation a few years before. It finally began to rain about 90 days into the program, but I knew the country needed to recover, so I continued to feed until I thought the grass would withstand grazing. I remember the calves being turned out – some were 3 months old, trying to eat anything that was green, whether it had thorns on it or not.

A few years before that drought, I had decided to reduce my stocking rate to 75 percent of normal (or recommended) and to try to not feed any hay or supplemental feed in the winter, only mineral. However, in really bad droughts, I would have to or destock further. I have a dozen or so traps and pastures that I use for decision-deferred (my decision) rotational grazing. Even with a 50 percent brush cover, most of my pastures were showing slow improvement (more grass production, less open ground, more desirable plants, less weeds). That decision certainly helped my pastures recover more quickly after that severe drought.

I keep up with my rainfall records, both long- and short-term. When I have three months of below-average rainfall, I think it is worth reviewing my drought plan. I’m not there yet; fortunately, the third month of the three often provides above-average rainfall – so far. However, dry and open cows (I have none) would go first, followed by older and heavier calves to reduce nutritional stress on their dams. Most of my calves came in April, so the steers could be sold, or I might creep them a little with a limited high-protein creep. I do have some nice heifers that I plan on keeping and could do so in some small grass traps around the headquarters. Or I might move them to someone who has grass.

If we get a tropical storm south of me, that would be great; I would get some rain. But as it stands now, it looks like it is going to be a dry year for some of us, so it might be a good time to get prepared.

Joe Paschal is a livestock specialist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Corpus Christi. He can be contacted at 361-265-9203 or email j-paschal@


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