So far, 2009 has been a great year for forage production in Kentucky with plenty of grass for grazing and even plenty to spare for hay making. Most farmers still have accumulated pasture to graze over the winter as well. But the previous two years of drought conditions still might have an effect on cows.
"The problem is the delayed effects of poor nutrition," said Roy Burris, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture beef specialist. "Last winter we were suffering from a feed shortage caused by two consecutive years of drought conditions which caused us to maintain our cows in less than optimum conditions."
Burris said pregnancy rates for spring-calving cows are lower than usual this year. Farmers should pregnancy-check their herds to identify open cows, then plan ahead for their winter feeding program.
"Plan to give cows some supplemental feed from calving time until grass is adequate to maintain good body condition going into the next breeding season," he said. "Farmers should have adequate hay supplies, but they should still calculate their needs to be sure."
If farmers need additional hay, Burris said it's cheaper this year, and they should still have time to construct a feeding pad from geotextile fabric gravel to minimize waste.
Farmers should probably sell open cows after feeding them long enough to put some weight on them.
Poor nutrition in previous years manifests itself in thin, bred cows who need to regain body condition, and producers can do this by putting them on some good accumulated fescue pasture to get them in good body condition by early May for the spring breeding season.
"You could also keep a few more heifers to replace some of the cows that were liquidated in the previous two years," Burris said. "Also, producers could consider a short, postweaning feeding period for their feeder calves instead of taking them from the cow to the market and, they could still consign to CPH-45 sales if they hurry."
Burris said producers routinely should carry over some hay they have stored inside and remember to feed outside hay first.
"Hopefully, you'll have some inside hay left over, and you can use that in case of a pasture or hay shortage next year," he added. "You don't have to ‘zero-out' your hay supply this winter if some of it is stored inside."
The low pregnancy rates this year may surprise some producers, but Burris said he's observed over several years that "wet years will disappoint you and dry, though not drought, years will surprise you."
He said farmers should realize cows that are moderate in size and milking ability have a better chance of rebreeding after times of limited feed than their larger, heavy-milking counterparts do.