Supplementing cows during drought is common practice. Harvested forages, such as hay, can be used to replace available forage for grazing. However, when attempting to replace grazing with feeding hay on pasture, cows prefer the palatability of fresh forage. This means that not until the available forage is virtually gone will cows choose the harvested forage. Due to this, feeding hay is likely a last resort and contributes little to “stretching” thin pastures.

Meteer travis
Beef Extension Educator / University of Illinois

Feeding hay in a drylot or creating a sacrifice area should be considered. Not only will this better accommodate feeding dry hay, but it will also better preserve grazing lands. Unless selling cows is deemed necessary, this is the best option to destock grazing lands. Preserving available forage and adequate residual growth is important to holding moisture when it comes.

In the Midwest, there is always availability of grains. However, grains are a poor supplement choice for grazing cattle. Starch-based feeds have been shown to cause negative associative effects when supplemented to a forage-based diet. This negative impact on forage digestion and high grain prices discourages corn, or other grains, as a supplement to droughty pastures.

Corn co-products (distillers grains, corn gluten feed) are fiber-based. The starch is removed in the milling process, and thus these co-products pair better with forage digestion. This, along with good protein and energy value, makes them good candidates for supplementing grazing animals.

If the goal of supplementation is to meet nutrient requirements of the cow, a minimal amount of co-product alone can be supplemented. When small amounts of co-product are supplemented to cows on poor-quality forage, the added nutrition can benefit forage digestion and help cows maintain weight.


If the goal of supplementation is to replace grazed forage intake, then mixing the co-product with a cheap forage (crop residues, hay, CRP hay) and feeding the mixture works best. Nebraska research showed when wet distillers and wheat straw were supplemented, it replaced grazed forage intake on nearly a 1-to-1 basis. A palatable, bulky total mixed ration (TMR) mix is likely the best way to replace forage intake when cows are still out on pasture. Utilizing a TMR can allow for use of more unconventional feedstuffs that may be available at lower prices.

Alternative feeds need to be investigated. Cover crop forages, local buys, waste-stream products are all opportunities. I have seen innovative farmers incorporate candy, bread, nuts, cookies, vegetable waste, screenings and off-spec feeds with the help of their nutritionist. Cattle are up-cyclers.

Cows have the unique ability to convert forages to protein, and cows are meant to work for us as foragers. However, the weather sometimes dictates need to help those cows out when grass goes scarce.