Livestock production during drought – guidelines

In large parts of the central interior available grazing material is scare on veld (natural pasture). Prospects for improvement of the poor grazing conditions in the remaining part of summer and winter are not favourable.

In addition to current poor grazing conditions, low levels of water in the soil during spring and early summer will also have a negative effect on veld production and livestock. Crops have already been hard hit and therefore crop residues, which are usually used as livestock feed will not be readily available.

The current prevailing situation is not good, but it can be managed. The following guidelines may help to prevent mortalities and reduce financial losses:

  • Keep a tight grip on cash flow.
  •  Safeguard the core breeding livestock. Remember these animals are the key income generators after the drought.
  • Where it is possible, provide strategic supplementary feeding on veld.
  •  Reduce the number of livestock that are dependent on farm feed sources by selling surplus animals or removing them temporarily from the veld – to a kraal or planted pasture.
  • Restrict livestock movement by confining animals to small paddocks with shade trees or other protection from the elements. This provides better control over the quantities of feed provided daily to the animals.
  • Don’t lose sight of the basics in a crisis; provide easy access to fresh, clean drinking water at all times.
  • Separate the stronger from the weaker animals, to reduce competition at the feed troughs.
  • Sell animals, especially cattle, before they become too thin to survive.
  • Do not feed animals ad lib. for too long. Ration the feed according to the required production levels; survival, maintenance (of body mass) or lactation.
  • Feed out into feed troughs, or onto feed pads or conveyor belts. Whatever you do, don’t feed out on the ground. The losses to wastage are significant.
  • Feed the ration every second or third day. For most animals this will be enough. It will also reduce competition at the feed troughs.
  • What can be fed? The basic feed for ruminants is roughage, whether it’s on the veld or in the trough. Coarsely ground roughage is always better utilised (less waste) than in the long form. The energy content can be increased with an appropriate source (e.g. ground maize) and balanced with an appropriate crude protein source. Balance minerals in the intake, according to animal requirements.
  • Pelleted feed, or cubes, are convenient from the point of view of transport, handling and reduced waste. But coarsely ground roughage can meet animal requirements.
  • Restrict the daily intake of salt (NaCl) for sheep to between 5g and 10 g and for cattle to between 50g and 60g.
Cull thin and emaciated animals before it is too late. It is part of effective management during drought to select animals out of the herd or flock in good time. It gets some much needed cash into the system; more importantly, resources are husbanded and used properly instead of being wasted on animals that won’t make it anyway.

Core herds/flocks

  • Group cord herds and flocks according to age classes and production status. Run the preg checks as soon as possible after the current mating season. If possible scan sheep and goats, to determine multiple birth conditions and adjust nutrition accordingly.
  • Assess teeth condition, especially for older cows, and ewes or does. Cows-in-calf must be able to graze until they calve down and then to graze through the weaning period. Older animals can complete production in a kraal, but at a cost.
  • Make inventories of all the available veld and other feed sources. You need this information to work out how many animals can be maintained into the next growing season.
  • Sell off surplus animals or remove them temporarily from the veld. Check your records to look at fertility and weaning weights. In each age class, cull less productive animals.
  • Strictly apply the principle of ‘cutting-your-losses’. Weigh and discount every expense against expected income in the short and medium term. Guard against selling off young, pregnant breeding animals. They will look better and fetch a better price but you need them to continue farming when the drought is over.
  • Ask your vet to help you make changes in the internal and external parasite control programme.


Every farmer has a different set of circumstances, so get professional advice to help with strategy planning.

When there is little or no grazing on the veld, licks will not help.

Take livestock off the veld and move them into camps where you can feed them strategically.

Cut and bale plant material where it is available along roadsides. The cladodes of spineless cactus pears can also be used as a good feed source – whole cladodes for cattle and coarsely chopped for sheep and goats. During droughts we cannot be too picky about quality feed. You are managing for survival which is different to managing for profitable production.

If poor quality roughage, such as veld hay, crop residues or cactus pear cladodes, is available, animal nutritionists can formulate diets based on this, to meet the minimum requirements of livestock.

The ruminant

The plant material selected during drought on dry, hammered veld contains little crude protein.

The ruminant digestive system and its symbiosis with microbes in the reticulo-rumen makes it possible to supplement crude protein with a non-protein nitrogen (NPN) source such as feed grade urea. The microbes in the reticulo-rumen break cellulose (fibre) down and produce new nutrients (volatile fatty acids and microbial protein).

The complex four compartment ‘stomach’ of the ruminant develops gradually from the suckling phase (when the animal is basically a monogastric) to that of a physiologically mature ruminant. In younger calves and lambs/kids the reticulo-rumen is still in the process of developing. At this stage, it is better to use natural, and higher quality protein sources rather than NPN; bypass protein may be strategically supplied.

Supplementary feeding (licks)

It is important to tackle the critical questions regarding a supplementary feeding programme:

  • What is the aim of the supplementation?
    Must protein, energy, a combination of protein and energy, or minerals be supplemented?
    Should animals gain in condition or must dry animals maintain mass (maintenance) or must lactation be supported? Animals in different production phases need specific types and quantities of supplementary feeding.
  • How can the aim be best achieved?
    Have the less productive animals been taken out to make grazing available for remaining livestock?
    This option is not used enough, which is a pity, because it can contribute enormously to the most efficient use of limited resources. At the same time it reduces the cost of feeding supplements to the core herd.
  • Can the farmer make sure he is on track with his original aim?
    Most well-intended programmes to improve animal performance fail in this regard, because the recommended level of supplementation is seldom achieved. Intake of supplementary feeding varies and is affected by feeding space (number of animal/trough), access to troughs (dominance between animals), level of supplementation and frequency of trough fill.
    Unless the provision of supplementary feeding is managed, some animals will consume too much while others take in so little that it will not benefit them at all.
  • Do not feed animals aimlessly on veld.
    A range of products are available; seek advice from an animal nutritionist about options and products.
  • Animals may lose body mass in moderation (10% -15%). Control the loss with judicious nutrition management over as long a period as possible.
Avoid feeding out onto the ground because you will have significant wastage. Feed out onto a feed pad, conveyor belting or into feeding troughs. Farmers are generally innovative and competent when it comes to designing cost-effective, practical equipment.
Avoid feeding out onto the ground because you will have significant wastage. Feed out onto a feed pad, conveyor belting or into feeding troughs. Farmers are generally innovative and competent when it comes to designing cost-effective, practical equipment.

Veld fires

  • Runaway veld fires can change the current precarious drought situation into a real crisis. Burnt veld is virtually in a disaster drought situation.
  • Burn effective breaks, especially along roads, around dwellings and ash dumps. Roads are not good fire breaks because the smooth surface becomes a pathway for embers, especially in a strong wind. Fire can also spread through culverts.
  • Veld fires suppress grass production for about two seasons. Therefore, veld must rest for at least one growing season after a runaway fire, and for at least one growing season before a planned veld burn.
Burn breaks to prevent fires. Runaway veld fires during a drought can turn a bad situation into a disaster. The veld needs at least two seasons rest after a fire.
Burn breaks to prevent fires. Runaway veld fires during a drought can turn a bad situation into a disaster. The veld needs at least two seasons rest after a fire.

Cattle are seriously affected by drought. Production and reproduction declines and immune responses are weakened, making disease a greater threat than usual.

Lactating cows, heavy-in-calf heifers, and weaners are the most vulnerable, because of their greater nutrient requirements.
A cost-effective management strategy is one that mitigates the effects of the drought on animal production, reproduction and general health.
Examine and interrogate these aspects of your herd management.

The following general aspects of management may be considered for beef cattle:

  • Check the pregnancy status of cows and heifers as soon as possible (8 weeks for cows and 6 weeks for heifers) after you have taken the bulls out.
    Cull the not-in-calf animals.
    Check the pregnancy status; early, mid or late conception relative to breeding.
  • Use this information and the body condition score to identify cows for early weaning, strategic supplementation or selling off.
    The effects of the drought can be reduced through informed decision making.
  • Sheep/goat production can benefit from early weaning of lambs/kids. Feed the ewes/does at lower maintenance levels and finish the lambs/kids in a feedlot.
  • Animal health starts at the mouth; good nutrition is the basis of healthy, productive animals.
    Vaccination programmes may need to be adjusted to changes in management programmes.
    Remember, inoculation is a simple action (an injection). The building of immunity is a more complex process which needs protein (amino acids in the diet) for antibody production.
    During droughts and dry seasons the protein content of veld is generally low. Consider early inoculation to ensure better immunity development.
  • Drastic management changes like kraaling animals, increases stress and susceptibility to diseases.
    Inoculate against opportunistic disease incidence which may increase.
    Specific local conditions and circumstances will dictate changes to inoculation programmes as well as to dipping and dosing regimes. Keep talking to your vet; it’s invaluable especially when things start getting difficult.
    Vitamin status must be evaluated and supplemented.

We wish you success with your livestock enterprise. Drought passes.

Prof. HO de Waal
Pr. Sci. Nat., Anim. Sci.
Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences 
University of the Free State

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