Whether or not the grazing season ahead will bring drought remains to be seen, but experts say ranch operators shouldn't wait to find out. Have a management plan in place now, so if the rain doesn't come, your strategy and timetable for action are already set.

Michael Hayes with the National Drought Mitigation Center, Lincoln, NE, says his best advice to producers dealing with drought is to resolve to take action. Because drought typically has a slow onset over time, it's typical for hopeful landowners to hold off. But history shows that multiple-year droughts are common.

Producers must plan ahead, recognizing that drought is a "normal" part of the climate. He says, "We often see one year with good moisture and the next year is drought. So producers need to be prepared and find ways to get through and adapt."

Particularly in the Great Plains, the weather history shows extreme change. Thus, water conservation must be a regular part of business. South Dakota State University Extension range livestock specialist Eric Mousel says a drought plan addresses the following five categories:

1. Set drought "trigger dates." Producers shouldn't wait until they're out of forage before making management decisions. Monitoring precipitation early during the growing season can help ranchers be proactive in setting key dates for instituting action.

For instance, Mousel says South Dakota research shows a current year's forage production in eastern South Dakota, which is primarily cool-season forages, is closely related to the amount of precipitation received in April. For areas with predominately warm-season forages, the year's forage production would be indicative of moisture received in May and June.

Based on that information, Mousel says these early precipitation indicators can help signal 3-4 months in advance if some of the herd may need to be sold or if calves need to be weaned early.

2. Implement a pasture-monitoring system. To determine how grazing and weather conditions are affecting your pastures, Mousel advises implementing some type of monitoring system. But the system should be quick, simple and produce useful information.

"If it's complicated, it probably won't get done," he says. He suggests three methods to document forage trends:

  • Visual observation -- where you simply list or map the abundance of key species, weeds and ground cover in each pasture.
  • Fenced enclosures, which allow you to compare ungrazed areas to grazed stubble heights.
  • Photo points -- where plot and landscape photos are taken from year to year at several permanently marked points within pastures.

Mousel recommends using the grazing management principle "take half and leave half." That means about 2-6 in. of residual plant vegetation should remain in the pasture at the end of the growing season. Even during winter grazing, when plants are dormant, some residual plant cover should be maintained to help capture precipitation and reduce soil erosion.

3. Be prepared to adjust stocking rates. Mousel says stocking rate is the single most important tool to minimize damage to forage resources and help enhance pasture recovery. "Heavy stocking in drought can extend full recovery of the range to 10 years and beyond," he says.

Thus, he encourages ranchers to aim for moderate stocking rates and reduce stocking pressure if forage is short. If a reduction is necessary, Mousel says there are options other than selling cows -- but they require advance planning. These strategies may include: early weaning (i.e., August vs. October); drylotting cows or grazing alternative forages such as cereal grains or Conservation Reserve Program acres.

As spring turnout approaches, Mousel cautions producers not to turn cows out on grass too early, which is especially hard on pastures in drought years. He suggests keeping cows on feed and giving grasses at least 2-3 weeks to get going before being grazed.

If grass runs short in late summer, he recommends early weaning over creep feeding. He says creep feeding hasn't been shown to save much grass, while early weaning can cut forage consumption by 25% and helps keep body condition on cows.

4. Maintain your base breeding herd. If liquidating cow numbers becomes necessary, Mousel says it's best to have a predetermined strategy regarding which females will be kept and which sold. For starters, he advises keeping two- to four-year-old females because they represent the highest net present value to the herd over the long term. "They're the genetics to build on as you come out of the drought," he says.

Thus, old, open and unproductive females should be sold first, with bred heifers and coming two-year-olds considered as the secondary group to be sold for income and to reduce stocking rates.

Mousel also notes if you're liquidating breeding stock due to drought, be certain to keep excellent records so you can properly report tax deferments to the IRS.

5. Take time to control weeds. During and after drought Mousel says it's especially important to anticipate weed problems, and be aggressive in controlling them.

"Weeds are a major competitor for soil moisture and space; sacrifice areas and heavily grazed pastures are particularly susceptible to weed infestations during drought," he says.

He suggests flash grazing weeds at first green-up to help with some control. Herbicide applications should also be done early -- usually in June. Mousel says if the weed is flowering, it's too late for the herbicide to be effective.