Developing a drought strategy for beef cattle

Major droughts generally develop following a dry spring and failure of subsequent summer rains. Decisions need to be made as to what relief measures are necessary. Important factors are the expected duration of the drought, the current water and feed supplies, the composition and body condition of the herd and financial resources available.


What financial resources are available? Financial resources will have a major bearing on management decisions. Remember you not only have to survive the drought but also the recovery period afterwards, when income may be reduced due to forced sales during the drought.

Are property management bonds available to you? Increasingly, producers will be expected to fund their own drought management programs. Property management bonds offer a scheme to do this. (Talk to your bank manager or financial adviser to find out how to take out these bonds.)

Investing in such bonds in good seasons can prove worthwhile. Although they must be held for 12 months before they can be used, they can be an important part of a longer term strategy to manage dry seasons and droughts. They can be transferred as part of an estate.

Management decisions

Careful consideration should be given to management effects on pastures and soils since these are the primary resource.

Stock management is vital and the following measures are very important:

  1. reduction in herd numbers
  2. strategic weaning of calves
  3. herd segregation
  4. parasite control
  5. opportunity feedlotting
  6. utilisation of available paddock feed
  7. attention to water supplies.

Reduction in herd numbers

Obviously, the longer all cattle remain on the property the worse feed and water supplies become and the harder it is on pastures, soil, livestock, finances, machinery and of course managers and families. Research in south-west Queensland shows that 90% of the year's feed supply is available by the end of March. Winter rain may produce herbage in southern Queensland but is unlikely to break a drought.

Sale or agistment are the two options available to reduce stock numbers.


Drought experience since 1965 shows the best motto is 'Sell and regret; but sell'.

This does not mean selling the whole herd, but rather to sell normal sale stock and vulnerable breeding stock (for example, aged and cull cows) to reduce the breeding herd by at least 20%. Sales help to generate a cash flow to meet ongoing commitments.

Depending on costs and returns, normal sale cattle may be 'topped off' with conserved fodder reserves, purchased feeds, or custom grain feeding rather than selling on a depressed store sale market.

The aim is to preserve the bulk of the breeders and young stock to restore normal production quickly after the drought breaks.

Calves and weaners under 12 months of age should only be sold if absolutely necessary, as they are the cheapest group to hand feed. They are also next year's income.


Agistment can have many pitfalls. Cattle may be neglected and lost. Costs usually increase as the drought progresses.

However, agistment can be a successful drought option if the necessary precautions are taken and graziers are aware of the pitfalls.

Strategic weaning

In a drought, producing milk, even at low levels, rapidly depletes a cow's body reserves. The calf derives little benefit. Weaning the calf gives the cow a better chance of survival. However, the decision to wean must be made in relation to the time of year and age of the calf. Prospects for late spring early summer storms can warrant handfeeding cows with young calves.

In normal years, the nutritive value of pastures falls towards the end of autumn. By this time, beef cows may be producing as little as 1 kg of milk per day. If the calf is five to six months of age there is little point in leaving it on the cow. Weaning will hold or improve cow condition, before the next calving.

In drought years early weaning is a must. Calves as young as one to two months of age need to be fed some true vegetable protein meal or preferably milk powder. Rearing very young calves is time consuming and difficult. It is recommended that calves are not weaned until three months unless absolutely necessary.

Most calves over three months will survive on grain plus lucerne hay or molasses plus vegetable protein meal diets.

Herd segregation

In drought, breeders and young stock are unable to compete with strong dry cattle for either paddock or supplementary feed. Further, drought feeding is costly and it is necessary to ensure that feeding is directed to the most needy animals. Segregating young and weak stock gives them a better chance to gain access to feed supplies.

Pregnancy testing is a useful tool to identify heavily pregnant cows for special feeding, especially young cows in calf for the second time. In this way, vulnerable classes of cattle can be segregated and given preferential treatment.

Parasite control

Cattle under nutritional and other stress are less resistant to parasites than in normal conditions.

In southern Queensland cattle lice are serious parasites during drought. It is essential to treat cattle for lice if they are to survive a major drought.

In ticky areas, it is necessary to dip breeders if tick numbers build up. Dipping may need to be repeated if dry conditions continue.

Worms can be a serious problem with young cattle and in drought all cattle under 18 months of age should be treated for worms.

Opportunity feedlots

The establishment of integrated, opportunity feedlots on beef cattle properties has a drought-resisting effect. The integrated feedlot allows growing cattle to be fattened in the feedlot in a short period. The removal of growing cattle from the system reduces overall stocking rate and makes more room for breeders.

Contract fattening in feedlots is also a popular option, and in some cases has proved financially rewarding. It is important to do a budget before feedlotting cattle. In many cases it is better to sell the cattle as stores.

Utilisation of paddock feed

Cattle often do not graze areas well away from watering points. Use of this dry feed can be encouraged with additional supplementary feeding as an attractant, before starting full hand feeding. Providing water facilities in these areas is worth consideration. Ground cover needs to be maintained to minimise soil erosion and reduction of long-term productivity potential.

Attention to water supplies

Boggy surface waters represent a death trap for drought-weakened cattle and the supply may become polluted. This can be avoided by fencing off water holes and equipping them with a temporary pumping unit, tank and troughing. Bores need to be checked regularly to ensure an adequate water supply, as levels recede in prolonged dry periods.

Salinity often increases with the lowering of underground supplies and the water may become too salty for stock. Upper limits of total soluble salts should not exceed 8500 ppm nor should the combined chlorides and sulphates of calcium and magnesium exceed 1400 ppm.