May 22, 2023

From Drought to Derechos – 2020 Challenges All Facets of Beef Production

Iowa beef producers have been in a heavyweight fight with Mother Nature for the past couple of years. 2019 was the blow of devastating floods and 2020 is the one-two punch of drought and derecho damage. No matter how vicious the combination, beef producers always seem to find a way to get back up off the canvas and continue on.

The next battle producers are gearing up for is the winter season. One of the biggest concerns many producers are going to deal with is drought-stressed feedstuffs and long-term water supplies. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, at the end of August 96% of Iowa was experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions with 29% of the state in severe drought and 7% in extreme drought. The numbers on October 1 look better but still indicate that almost 70% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions with almost 23% experiencing severe drought.


Early rains in the spring may have delayed the first cutting of the hay crop and the second and third cuttings have produced lower-quality hay. Counties that have experienced drought conditions have harvested hay crops that are stressed and more mature, affecting the total digestible nutrients (TDN). 24 counties in western Iowa were authorized this August to use Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage for emergency haying and grazing.

“When it comes to forage quality there is a simple relationship of variables,” said Daniel Loy, Ph.D., professor of animal science at Iowa State University and director of the Iowa Beef Center. “The increased maturity of the forage leads to decreased quality of the forage. Looking specifically at previous samples of CRP forage, we see crude protein values as low as 2% to as high as 8% and energy values are frequently below 50% TDN. We strongly encourage producers to

invest in testing their hay or forage for nutrient analysis. This will help producers know how much protein and energy supplementation they will need for the cattle in differing stages of production.”

The crop damage from the August 10 derecho has prompted more farmers to consider harvesting their lodged corn for silage. This could potentially produce sileage with high nitrate levels which are toxic to cattle. If producers are considering feeding drought-stressed or derecho-damaged silage, it is advised that the silage is tested for nitrate levels prior to feeding.

Another pitfall for cattle this year will be grazing cornstalk fields. The drought has left many cornstalks weak and even minor winds caused some lodging which means there will be more corn and corn ears on the ground in the fields after harvest. Producers should plan to limit grazing or feed hay prior to turning them out in the fields to prevent overconsumption. Once the cattle eat the preferred nubbins, leaves and shucks that are low in nitrates, plan to move the cattle into new areas to avoid eating the high nitrate stalks.


“Cattle absolutely need access to fresh water at all times,” said Loy. “Cattle are between 60-70% water, so making sure you have a high-quality water source is key to the overall health and productivity of the animal. In general terms, cattle need to drink about a gallon of water for every one pound of dry matter consumed.”

The effects of the lingering drought have had a major influence on water quality issues for producers throughout the state. Many surface water sources such as ponds and streams became stagnant and developed blue-green algae which produce toxins that affect the nervous system and liver.

“Whenever we go through an extended drought, many farmers start to think about their long-term water resources,” said Loy. “Hauling water is labor intensive and very costly. Farmers then start exploring developing a permanent water source that utilizes automatic watering systems which can be very cost-effective over the long term.”

Another water issue to consider during the winter months is monitoring your cattle’s lower critical temperature (LCT). Once the temperature dips below this point, your cattle have to expend extra energy to maintain a constant core body temperature. There are several factors that can affect your cattle’s LCT including hair coat thickness, body condition, weather conditions, hide thickness, etc. For example, a steer with a dry, heavy winter coat will have an LCT of 20°F, while a steer with a wet, light summer coat might have an LCT of 50°F.

“Cattle below the LCT will need to increase their metabolism which in turn requires more calories,” said Loy. “A general formula is that for every 1° below the critical temperature, the animal’s energy requirements increase 1%. Access to a plentiful, quality water supply then becomes critical because reduced water consumption leads to reduced feed intake which will stress the animal further. Another consideration is the actual temperature of the water. A healthy calf will have a temperature between 100°F and 102.5°F. If that calf drinks very cold water, he will have to expend energy to get that water up to his body temperature, even with heat generated by fermentation in the rumen. Providing water that is heated in the winter is more palatable and helps reduce cold stress.”

Since 1921 beef producers have relied on Ritchie Industries, Inc., an Iowa company that invented automatic waterers, to provide temperature-controlled, clean, fresh water on demand in all weather conditions.

“Ritchie Industries has been a pioneer and innovator in automatic livestock waterers for almost 100 years and our mission is to provide fresh water for life,” said Robert Amundson, President and CEO of Ritchie Industries, Inc. “Installing a reliable, clean water source is one of the key steps to becoming a sustainable and profitable operation. Ritchie waterers are also very energy efficient and meet the agricul- tural rebate requirements through participating electric cooperatives. Iowa producers who install electric heat- ed livestock waterers are eligible for up to $50 in rebates per waterer. In 2020, every little bit helps out.”