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Extension Education | September 2023

Why Consider Drylotting Cows This Fall?

Connor Biehler, Nebraska Extension Educator

University of NE - Lincoln, UNL Beef

This fall as pastures continue to recover from drought in previous years, some producers who traditionally pasture their cattle are considering feeding cow-calf pairs in confinement. Drylotting can be a feasible way to allow pasture recovery, while feeding grain, forage, and crop stover to pairs. A few of the many advantages of a drylot system include closer observation of the herd, low weaning stress, and providing opportunity to bunk break calves prior to weaning.

While input costs of confined feeding of pairs is more expensive than in years past due to increased commodity prices, it provides the opportunity for producers to stockpile forage in the future. With hay prices still above $200/ton, limiting inclusion amounts in diets is economical. However, in order to keep a healthy rumen, forage inclusion should be at least 0.5% of the cow’s weight on a dry matter basis.

When developing rations, consider using cost per unit of protein and energy to determine the most cost-effective feed. If available, corn silage produces more energy per acre than any other crop. Silage mixes well with low quality forages, and it can help to limit the needed inclusion of low-quality hay, which can help to prevent ruminal impaction. Low level grain inclusion can also decrease cost per unit of energy.

Knowing the quality of your feedstuffs is an important part of feeding cattle in a drylot. It is recommended to test your feed as a total mixed ration, but more importantly testing forages prior to the feeding period. This allows nutritionists/producers the ability to develop rations that properly meet the nutrient requirements of the animal, and not exceed them, wasting resources.

To further reduce wasting of feed resources, drylots provide the option to limit feed, by reducing intake while still meeting nutritional requirements. Limit feeding should be fed at least 1.75% of body weight, otherwise cows will exhibit irritable disposition from lack of fill. This can be mitigated further by feeding long stem hay, which promotes rumination, keeping the cattle more content and reducing behaviors like fence chewing.

If properly managed, confined feeding herd health is comparable to pasture scenarios. Cattle should be lotted into pens allowing 500-800 square feet per pair. If pens are too large and dry conditions persist, the increased dust from the surface promotes a greater chance of pneumonia for calves. When planning to drylot cows, allow for 28-36 inches of bunk space per pair.

It is ideal to separate cows based on nutrient requirements. Younger cows and first calf heifers have greater energy and protein requirements, whereas mature cows in good condition require less energy relevant to their body weight. If feeding everything in one pen is the only option a producer has, maximizing bunk space per head is highly recommended to allow smaller, more timid cattle a spot at the bunk.

Other things to keep in mind for drylotting cows:

1. Feeding whole corn works better than rolled corn when daily forage intake is at 0.5% of body weight

2. Mineral can be either mixed into the feed or fed free choice

3. Feeding cattle in a dry lot increases the production life of older, broken mouth cows

4. A smaller, confined area allows for easier health checks of cattle

For more information on Nebraska Beef Extension or drylotting cows, call (402) 624-8007 or visit

Courtesy University of Nebraska - Lincoln, UNL Beef.

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