Drylotting Cows

The practice can add diversification to a small operation or help wait out a disaster.

Alan Eck, Image by Becky Mills

Whether it’s by choice or because of a natural disaster, there are times when cows and calves end up in a drylot. The good news is it can work.

For Alan Eck, drylotting is a choice. The 26-year old Henderson, Maryland, farmer is growing his operation, which includes corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, straw, hogs and broilers--as well as a small cow/calf and finishing operation. He doesn’t have the land available to graze year-round yet, so cows and calves spend April through October in a pen at a former dairy. They graze rye cover crops in the winter.

University of Nebraska cow/calf specialist Karla Jenkins says, “Buying pastureland can be cost-prohibitive for young people. Management for cows in drylots is a little different, but it can be quite feasible.”

In a 2016 University of Nebraska study, researchers compared the break-even price per pound of weaned calves and found a total confinement system for cows and calves was the most expensive production system, with a production price of $2.11 per pound. A system where cows were kept in a drylot only in the summer, grazing cornstalks the rest of the year, was the least-expensive system, at $1.31 per pound.

Jenkins notes actual break-even costs depended on a number of factors, including feed and health costs, cow costs and other inputs. There’s also the drought factor.

“A drylot is a means to keep people from cutting quite so deep in their herd,” she says. “When you have to start culling those younger cows, it hurts financially, especially considering replacement cost.”


When it comes to managing cows and calves in a drylot, University of Georgia extension animal scientist Jacob Segers tends to think of feed challenges first.

“Normally, in our area, [use of drylots] is due to a problem that causes pasture loss. I’m concerned that cows get enough nutrients and roughage in their diet. You don’t want them to drop a lot of weight. To keep the rumen healthy, they need [to consume] at least one-half a percent of their body weight per head per day of roughage. For a 1,200-pound cow, that is 6 to 7 pounds of long-stem hay or wheat straw, or some kind of effective fiber.”

In a drought or any disaster, Segers notes hay quickly gets scarce and prohibitively priced. He says producers can turn to substitutes like cotton gin trash or peanut hulls. In Nebraska, Jenkins says ranchers often use baled corn stalks or wheat straw to help cows get enough roughage, or they feed byproducts like beet pulp.

“You can get creative, but it is important to know the cow’s nutrient needs during each stage of production, as well as nutrient levels of the feed,” she stresses.


Because use of a drylot is a regular part of Alan Eck’s production system, he normally has an ample supply of homegrown grass hay that he feeds free-choice. In addition, he feeds a mix of homegrown ground corn and barley, along with soybean meal. He puts everything in a self-feeder and says cows eat an average of 10 pounds per head per day. Ration cost averages around 61 cents per head per day.

Eck hasn’t seen any acidosis or bloat in his cows, but Segers cautions this can be a problem when cows are offered a grain mix free-choice. If that happens, he limit-feeds or makes a hot mix with salt to lower consumption.

When limit-feeding, he stresses it’s important to make sure there is enough trough space. He recommends 28 to 36 inches of bunk space per cow. Make sure both water sources and feedbunks are low enough for calves to reach. They will start eating feed early this way, and that will help rumen development.

Eck has seen that benefit firsthand. He says it’s an advantage to have calves eating grain mix beside their dams. He uses the same ration for weaning and finishing, so this early exposure smooths the transition.

It is important to make sure cows and calves have enough room in a drylot. Segers recommends 500 to 800 square feet per cow/calf pair. In the Midwest and the Plains, where spring is often cold and wet, Jenkins says calving in drylots adds challenges.

She recommends calving on fallow crop ground rather than in a drylot, so baby calves aren’t in the mud. If that’s not an option, she says to consider adjusting calving season to keep them out of the lot when they are more vulnerable to illness. It’s also important to remember all calves in a drylot may need immunity boosts and more frequent vaccinations to stay healthy.


Putting cows and calves in a drylot is a choice for some. For Florida’s John Hill, it was the only option he had, and in his mind, it was not a very good one.

Hill’s experience with a semi-drylot situation began Oct. 10, 2018, when Hurricane Michael hit his Marianna farm and wiped out almost every fence on his 350-cow registered and commercial Angus operation. And, with the power out, he had no way to run his wells and water cattle.

“There was a pond where the grown cows were, so I put the yearling heifers and bred heifers in with them,” Hill says.

That left 60 mature cows, including 12 that had just calved, and both groups of heifers for a total of 200 head in a 50-acre pasture. While there was bahiagrass in the pasture when the hurricane hit, it was going dormant and was quickly grazed down.

The hurricane did blow 25 rolls of hay into the pasture from the adjoining hayfield, so he relied on it, although he says a wet summer lowered the quality.

Supplementing cattle wasn’t a workable solution. “We’re not equipped to feed commodities; we don’t have a feed wagon or enough troughs,” he explains. Plus, two of his tractors were out of commission because of hurricane damage.

Rather than try to gear up to feed the 200 head, he, along with friends, family and volunteers, worked brutal hours to clear paths in the downed trees to get cattle to water and to make lanes for trucks to haul them out.

Hill shipped the yearling heifers to sale but says the few weeks with no supplement set them back badly. The bred heifers went to ZWT Ranch, in Tennessee, where his friends there are calving them out and rebreeding them, and they’ll stay until he can get his fences up.

Even though it was late, he did get winter annuals planted for his cows and calves, and is using the high-quality forage to put condition back on them. He is also still working nonstop to clear downed trees off fencelines and rebuild his 15 miles of fence, so he can group his cattle by age and stage of production, and supplement them, as needed.


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