The predictions of a hot, dry summer continue. Coupled with less than normal snow pack in most of the mountain ranges, pastures and harvested feed may be in short supply in late summer and fall.

This isn't a certainty, but compounding the problem is that some areas were dry last year, and the subsoil moisture is not there to carry through another dry year. I am advising livestock producers to book hay and other feeds that they plan to use this fall.

In some areas, the Bureau of Land Management and other government grazing land agencies are restricting the turning out of cattle onto the range due to insufficient moisture for grass or forbs to grow. Their concern is for the sometimes fragile ecosystem, but cows and calves won't do well either with reduced feed. This puts additional pressure on hay fields and meadows, which in turn may reduce hay tonnage and limit fall grazing.

I encourage producers to be prepared for what may happen this grazing season by having a contingency plan. Several factors to consider include:

* Cull all open and older, poor- doing cows.

* Save the best feed for first- and second-calf heifers.

* Supplement the cow herd with by-product feeds, straw, grain hays or other cheap feed sources.

* Creep feed calves.

* Early wean the calves.

The Best Way To Supplement

What is the best (cheapest) feed to supplement the cow herd? It depends a lot on location. Whatever feed is available to the producer in quantity and price is what I try to work into the ration, keeping in mind that in a limited feed situation, dry matter and fiber may be as important as protein and energy.

In these times, vitamin and mineral supplementation may be more critical than at other times. (I stressed the importance of water in my May column, "Water - the overlooked nutrient," page 18).

Byproduct feeds such as cottonseed and sunflower seed hulls, citrus pulp, malt sprouts, wheat midds, low test weight grains, beet pulp and soy hulls are some of the feed sources that I use. High fiber sources (hays) include small grain hays, millet, straw and grass straw or hay.

One beef Extension specialist suggests that even 2-year-old straw in good condition may be used, as it may be more easily digested than newer straw. Treating straw or other fibrous roughage with molasses or ammonia may make the feed more palatable while increasing the feed value.

Early weaning of calves may be a viable option for producers. After four months, the cow's milk production is declining, the calf's nutrient requirements are increasing, and the calf is obtaining more nutrients from other sources.

The Benefits Of Early Weaning It's always more efficient to feed the calf directly rather that feed the cow to produce milk for the calf. It usually takes 15-20% less energy to feed the calf by itself than to feed a cow nursing a calf. By removing the calves from the cows or creep feeding the calves, grazing pressure is reduced and the cow's nutrient requirements are lower.

If the decision is made to early wean the calves, they should be presented a creep feed 20-30 days prior to weaning. This allows them to get accustomed to the ration and minimizes stress.

The diet of early-weaned calves needs to be high in energy, high in protein, highly digestible and balanced for vitamins and minerals. Producers may feed a total concentrate ration if time allows sufficient supervision. But, most producers should feed a high-quality hay in limited amounts with a good concentrate supplement.

Pelleting the supplement prevents sorting of the ingredients and also ensures that calves get a balanced ration and the cost is minimal. Molasses, anise oil (licorice), bubble gum flavor, apple or other additives may be added to increase palatability. Intake is very critical in early-weaned calves.

Corn is usually the most cost-efficient ingredient for creep or early weaning feeds, but calves tend to become overly fleshy. Oats and dehy are good "safe" feed sources as are wheat midds because they cause few digestive problems.

I usually recommend using wheat midds as the primary ingredient in a pellet because they are a good source of digestible fiber, medium source of protein and energy, and are high in phosphorus. Wheat midds do not cause acidosis or bloat, and these are critical management factors during the busy summers.

One concern of some producers is that early-weaned calves will not perform as well in the feedlot as later- weaned calves. In most cases, this hasn't proven to be true. In reality, early-weaned calves of larger breeds may finish at a lighter weight (1,100-1,200 lbs.) rather than at the heavier weights that may be discounted. However, this is highly dependent on the total program.

As always, most recommendations are good, but they have to fit each individual's operation and be both cost-effective and time-effective. Producers need to be cost-conscious even in these times of good prices.

Editor's note: For comprehensive information on byproduct feed values, see the March issue of BEEF ("2000 Feed Guide," page 10) or visit www.beef-mag.com for the online version.

David Wieland is a nutrition consultant specializing in cow/calf, feedlot and horses. Based in Shepherd, MT, Wieland also publishes a subscription newsletter. For more information, contact him at 406/373-5512 or e-mail at dwieland@mcn.net.