College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Public Service and Agriculture

Clemson experts explain drought protection measures for forages and livestock


Clemson experts explain drought protection measures for forages and livestock

CLEMSON — Drought has South Carolina livestock farms in its grips, but Clemson University experts offer advice for cattle owners to protect their investments.

Photo of a farm. Clemson researchers are teaming with area farmers to learn how to grow alfalfa with bermudagrass to increase forage quality.
The 2019 drought has South Carolina livestock operations in its grips, but Clemson University experts say producers can take steps to lessen drought impacts on their operations.

Lee Van Vlake, Clemson Cooperative Extension Service area livestock and forages agent in the Pee Dee Region, said making proper management decisions can help cattle producers lessen the drought impact on their operations.

“Drought conditions can have severe impacts on cattle,” Van Vlake said. “But if certain strategies are in place, this can help minimize the economic impact.”

Decrease of available forages is one of the most noticeable impacts of drought. When this happens, producers are faced with the decision to supplement feed and purchase stored forage, which can increase production costs.

Matthew Burns, Clemson Extension beef specialist and Livestock and Forage Program team leader, said cattle owners should have the hay tested (for both quality and potential toxicity problems), especially during drought situations when nitrate poisoning  can be of concern on some drought-stressed forages.

“Testing hay will allow producers to make sure they are meeting the nutritional needs of their cow herd through hay and supplementation if needed,” Burns said. “If it is found a herd needs supplements added to its diet, producers can work with their local Extension agent to determine a plan that works for their individual operation.”

When a drought strikes, animals should be organized into feeding groups based on nutritional needs determined from age and stage of production. Hay test results can be used to determine which hay to match with which group and which group needs greater supplementation.

Producers can drop off hay samples at their county Extension offices. They will be sent to the Clemson University forage lab. Mixed feed and silage samples also can be tested. To find out more about submitting feed and forage samples for analyses, contact your local Extension office and talk with the livestock and forage agent or go to

Lindsey Craig, Clemson Extension livestock and forage agent, said in times of stress cattle owners are encouraged to designate parts of their pastures as “sacrifice pastures” for feeding locations for cattle.

“Having some sacrifice pastures available to protect forage from over-grazing across the entire farm is a good management practice when drought conditions are present,” Craig said. “Doing this will increase forage recovery and decrease forage recovery time when drought conditions subside.”

Craig said once rain becomes steady again, pastures should be evaluated for forage growth.

“Producers should only turn livestock back into the pastures after these pastures have shown adequate forage growth,” she said.

Adam Gore, Clemson agriculture and horticulture Extension agent from Abbeville County, said pastures are drying up, forcing some cattle producers to feed their cattle hay to make up for dry pastures.

“In Abbeville County, it has been a mixed bag,” Gore said. “Some farmers had greater success early in the year through mid-summer, accumulating enough hay to make it through the winter, while others may be stretched thin.”

A hay bale site in a large field.
Feeding cattle hay and other supplements is expensive and can be twice as much or more than delivering the same nutrients from pasture.

Feeding cattle hay and other supplements is expensive and can be twice as much or more than delivering the same nutrients from a pasture. Brian Bolt, Clemson livestock specialist, encourages producers to investigate strategies to reduce waste.

“For example, use of a hay ring for round hay bales has been shown to reduce waste from 45 percent to just 7 percent,” Bolt said.

Stockpiling fescue or establishing winter annuals is important for pasture performance and persistence the following year. It is important for cattle producers to take time to stockpile fescue or ensure they have an adequate growth of small grains so that their forage supply won’t be adversely affected.

“Droughts are a reality,” Bolt said. “Producers should develop drought management strategies and plans that outline what steps will be taken to mitigate the effects well in advance. These include determining which animals will be culled first, where additional feed resources may be located and decision tools to evaluate their effectiveness at meeting animals’ needs.”

Decisions made too late and with emotion as a guiding force often have negative impacts on a farming/ranching operation, he said.

During droughts, producers can sometimes be forced to sell cattle when forage is scarce. Steve Richards, a Clemson Extension economist, warns producers of tax implications they could face.

“When selling livestock, regardless of the reason, there are tax implications,” Richards said. “Different types of dairy or beef cattle have different tax rates: breeding livestock (raised versus purchased), feeders, etc.  It is a good idea to consult a trusted tax professional to make the best possible decision.”

To help producers mitigate risks, programs are available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency. One is the Pasture, Rangeland, Forage Pilot Insurance Program. This pilot program is designed to provide insurance coverage for pastures, rangelands and forages used to feed livestock. It covers loss of forage due to lack of precipitation, such as in a drought. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center is used to determine precipitation and does not measure production or loss of products themselves.

Other tools available for livestock producers include the Livestock Risk Protection for Feeder Cattle and the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection programs.

“These policies are available in most counties and most states,” Richards said. “For more information, producers can contact a USDA Risk Management Agency-approved insurance agent.”

A list of crop insurance agents is available at all USDA service centers and on the Risk Management Agency’s website in the Agent Locator section.

The Clemson Livestock and Forages Team is compiling resources related to drought management, supplementation, tax implications, as well as other topics and will house this information on its website: Burns said this information is expected to be available soon.

South Carolina has been in a drought most of the summer. Thomas Walker of the S.C. Water Resources Center said rain and cooler temperatures are needed to pull South Carolina out of the drought.

“South Carolina experienced a dry May this year and moved into drought conditions,” Walker said. “Then we experienced a wet June, which got us out of that drought condition and helped prevent a more serious current drought situation. It may take a month or more of consistently wet conditions to pull South Carolina out of this drought this fall.”

Weather data from Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center (REC) in Blackville shows 4.16 inches of rain fell in August and 0.51 inches of rain in September, according to Scott Sell, a research associate at the REC.

“We’re also losing 0.2 inches of water per day through evaporation and transpiration on top of not getting any rain,” Sell said. “This is probably the worst drought I’ve ever seen.”

Want to Discuss?

Get in touch and we will connect you with the author or another expert.

Or email us at

    This form is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.