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Drylot Management

12:20PM Apr 01, 2014
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By: Karla Hernandez, Forages Field Specialist, SDSU Extension

The use of a drylot beef cow/calf system is an alternative management system to the traditional methods of pasture or range beef production. By definition, a drylot system involves confining cow/calf pairs in a feedlot environment during part or all of the summer or fall grazing season. While in the feedlot, the cattle are fed with forages, grains, and crop residues which may have more value when processed through cattle with beef as the end product than if you had sold them on the commodity market as plant matter.

There are some significant advantages of using a drylot system: 1) it increases the market value of crop residues, forages and other feedstuffs; 2) it allows for pasture and rangeland to rest and regrow vegetation; 3) it can lower the cost of production; and 4) it may allow additional family members to come back to the farming operation.

Many producers will probably use a drylot at some point during the year for the reasons outlined above. Principally, they may consider drylotting their cattle in the spring as they are waiting for pasture and rangeland to grow enough forage that grazing cattle will not damage the health of the land; or during the late autumn and winter when grazing land is severely limited due to snow-cover. It should also be noted that there has been a trend recently for greater use of drylot by producers as the prices of grain commodities have risen, putting pressure on cattle and grain producers to put their pasture-land into grain production.

There are also some disadvantages of using drylot system for your cattle: 1) it requires a greater use of labor and equipment to assure the cattle are fed; 2) it will require the producer to manage the manure which is produced; 3) equipment and facilities will depreciate and experience wear-and-tear at a much quicker rate; 4) drylots are challenging environments for cattle with a potential for a large concentration of mud, dust and flies; and 5) in a confined area, there is a greater potential for the rapid spread of contagious disease. It should be noted that with good management and planning, these disadvantages can be reduced; though if they are not considered when developing the drylot they can have very negative effects on the producer’s operation.

The decision of a producer to put their cattle into a drylot should be carefully weighed and researched. The potential to have higher profits by taking rangeland and turning it into cropland can be attractive to many producers. For some, this can be a good economic decision if they have facilities available to drylot cow/calf pairs in a healthy environment, and have a solid understanding of the production characteristics of their land. Alternatively, producers who move quickly from a traditional use of pasture and rangeland to a drylot system without careful planning for labor, equipment, feed-stock supply, and cattle density in the drylot can quickly see problems develop which can lead to compromised performance and cattle health.

Drylots are a valid and potentially profitable way of raising cow/calf pairs; however they do require careful planning by the producer. While drylot beef production practices may not be a conventional approach to managing cow/calf pairs, it may be an inevitable alternative that allows cattlemen to maintain or build livestock numbers while facing increased competition for grazing acres.


  • Lardy, GP and Anderson VL (2003) Alternative feeds for ruminants. NDSU Cooperative Extension Service. AS-1182. Page 23
  • Wright C (2002) Limit-feeding cows in a drylot. SDSU Cooperative Extension Service. Pages 1-2