When grass is gone and hay is thin - as it is in too much of the country this fall - beef cow nutrition becomes less a game of pick and choose than one of seek and find.

Specifically, Todd Thrift, livestock specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, says the first step in managing drought nutrition is seeking out open cows.

"I'm suggesting to producers that when they're weaning calves, go ahead and palpate the cows and get those cows that aren't pregnant off the feed bill. Make sure you're putting the nutrition into the cows that are going to stay," says Thrift.

Next, find the feed that fits the situation. In this case, Thrift explains there are Olympic-sized differences between substituting and supplementing feed.

"When forage is abundant, supplements like cottonseed meal or soybean meal that stimulate intake are a positive," says Thrift. When forage is scarce, though, he explains supplementing high protein (greater than 30%) restricts rather than extends opportunity. "A lot of people don't understand when you're short on forage, you're short on energy."

Basic Possibilities With that in mind, John Paterson, beef Extension specialist with Montana State University, suggests, "If you're out of grass, you have to substitute with a high-energy, lower-protein feed at maybe three to five pounds, depending on the shape of the cows."

In his neck of the woods, that could be corn, light barley or by-products like wheat-mids. Conversely, if some forage is available and extending it is the goal, then Paterson explains 1-2 lbs. of a 30% protein supplement would be a more likely strategy.

"I think we will be feeding a lot of straw in the ration if we can find it this winter," says Paterson. "As an example, feeding five pounds of high-quality alfalfa hay, as much straw as we can get into them, then filling them up the rest of the way with grain."

However, as producers select alternative rations, Thrift cautions, "There are tremendous differences between feed ingredients in terms of nutritional value. Generally, the cheapest sack of feed isn't necessarily the best bargain because of energy content."

Depending on geographic availability and cow body condition, ingredients like corn, cottonseed meal and soybean meal usually represent the more attractive value options, he says.

Likewise, in a drought situation, Thrift points out, "One thing that is important to understand with self-fed liquid programs and block-type supplements is the consumption. If we're dealing with a cow that has only half as much forage available as normal, the pound she will lick out of a tub will not make up for 10 pounds of forage deficiency." She just can't consume enough of it.

Moreover, Julie Walker, an area beef specialist with South Dakota State University, believes producers must consider management when selecting feed alternatives. As an example, although she says it's possible to winter cows on a high-concentrate diet, a producer unfamiliar with feeding such a hot ration can wreak metabolic havoc through mismanagement.

Plus, Walker explains feeding corn, as an example, requires more planning and labor. Instead of putting out feed every second or third day, corn has to go out every day. Bunks, bunk space, mix consistency and spoilage are suddenly considerations a producer may face for the first time.

Skimp And Limp Whatever the nutritional choices, Thrift emphasizes, "Now is not the time to skimp on the nutritional or animal health program to save money. When cattle are stressed, their immune system is compromised so that other animal health challenges like parasites can take a heavier toll."

In fact, Paterson says, "If these cows have been on drought forage all summer, I've got to be wondering if they have enough Vitamin A or Vitamin E."

Basically, Thrift and Paterson say it boils down to considering nutritional costs compared to the cost of a sub-par body condition score (BCS) at calving time and subsequent declines in reproductive performance.

In round numbers, Thrift says cows that are a BCS 5-6 at calving time should offer an 85-90% breed-back. Mature cows with a BCS 4 will breed back at a rate of about 70%, while first-calf heifers in the same condition will come in at approximately 50%. Drop down to a BCS 3, and you're looking at about 30%.

And, Walker points out, "The cheapest time to put gain or growth on an animal is when nutritional requirements are lowest." For cows and condition, that means after calves are weaned and before the dead of winter.

Moreover, depending on how the winter plays out, Paterson says adding and maintaining condition before Jan. 1 could pay added dividends. He explains, "The easy thing right now is to say `let's sell the open cows.' But, if it's a hard winter and a tight situation, we may have to dig even deeper into the cowherd."