My View From The Country

Drought Mitigation Is Now The Watchword

It is impossible to go through a drought unscathed. All you can do is try to minimize the damage.

I attended a drought mitigation workshop this week. It didn’t take long to figure out why it was called “drought mitigation” ‒ it is almost impossible for a rancher to go through a drought unscathed. The key is to mitigate the damage and emerge with the land resource in a state where it is not damaged and where the financial condition of the operation is such that it is positioned to take advantage of the opportunities to come.

That’s easy to comprehend but extremely difficult to do when you’re trying to hold a lifetime of genetic progress intact. The really difficult part of this scenario is that we are already at a low in the cattle cycle, numbers are extremely tight, and once the rain returns, the demand for females is going to be tremendous.

The drought is extremely severe in my portion of Eastern Colorado. For perspective, Colorado endured the second driest January to June in the last 118 years and this year is the hottest in that same time frame.

And it’s not just Colorado. National statistics show the same thing ‒ it’s amazing how many agricultural states are seeing this year rank in the top 10 for drought and heat over that time frame. Nearly 80% of the nation’s cowherd is located in areas that are classified as being in moderate to extreme drought. Corn prices have soared as result of the drought and hay prices are already exceeding previous records.

Fortunately, most of the Northern Plains is coming off a relatively wet three-year period. As a result, cattle have been largely subsisting off the grass grown in previous years. Yet in many areas, that reserve is just about gone, and additional liquidation is just beginning. Calf prices have already declined in value by $200/head or more since the spring. An economic simulation model showed that, prior to the drought, profits of $150/head were possible. Plug in the drought numbers and the model shows the margin has declined to a negative $250/head on average.  

Obviously, everyone wants to avoid the scenario that we saw play out for ranchers affected by the severe drought in Texas and Oklahoma last year. Many producers started the spring with cows valued at $1,400/head or more, they put $600 of feed in them, sold them for $1,100, and are now trying to buy the same cows back at $2,000/cow. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand those numbers don’t add up.

Conference speakers stressed that acting early, rather than waiting, pays dividends; and that the middle of a drought is about the worst time to start making plans. Another certainty about drought is that it is riddled with uncertainty. Well after the optimum decision point, there is still an opportunity for it to rain and salvage a grazing season.

Cattlemen who spoke at the conference not only had implemented sophisticated grazing systems and managed range conditions so they had more reserves to rely on, but they had developed in-depth drought management plans, with trigger dates and conditions that determined their next steps.

One of those ranchers was from Nebraska, and his ranch was well below normal precipitation on June 4. But he knew how much production he would be short and the following day, he liquidated cows to reflect that. He had Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, depending on the severity and the situation; and with a plan in place, he was managing proactively vs. being dictated to by Mother Nature.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

Joe C. Paschal (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2012

You are right Troy, a good grazing plan and a knowledge of rainfall patterns for YOUR ranch is critical to minimizing the impact of drought. Having a stocking rate 85, 80, even 75% of normal often means that dry years (below normal rainfall) occurs only once every 5 years instead of every other year. Less feeding, less drought sales, better calf crops, less worry. I feel for the states in exceptional drought now but our severe drought in Texas is not over yet, not be a long shot.

Jeff Gerhard (not verified)
on Aug 3, 2012

How about a PRF policy Troy? Insurance for pasture, range & forage crop for 2013. Pays in event of whatever level of protection you choose if rainfall is below 48 year average for 12x12 mile grid your place is located. Has really helped the last couple of years in Texas offset feeding costs, etc.

chahbani (not verified)
on Aug 30, 2012

New Technology and possibility for Drought Mitigation.
The recent drought in USA is real situation which will more and more happens , worldwide within the climate change conditions. Man connot change the world climate, He has to coop with. This what is doing Chahtech SA a Tunisian innovative SME.
Chahtech SA after the use of the buried diffuser in the normal irrigation(the buried diffuser uses 2 times less water then drip irrigation) has created a new method of”anticipated irrigation and water injection in the deep soil layers “. The goal of this new concept is: how to save and conserve the huge of water received during the wet season, for the next dry season. More then that in other regions of the world the challenge is higher: how to save and conserve the huge of water received during the wet or rainy years to be used during the long dry period: one till 3 years?
For the "anticipated irrigation», instead of irrigation during the hot or the dry season, the irrigation using buried diffusers is done during the autumn and winter or during the rainy season. The amount of water of the «anticipated irrigation» should cover the total need of the crop during the hot or dry season (spring and summer). This water amount is stored in the deep soil layers will be used by the deep or sob surface roots systems of the crops.
For the "water injection in the deep soil layers” it is useful especially for trees crops. The injected water comes from: dams, rivers, and springs. The amount of the injected water could cover the need of the trees for several years (3years) when the soil below 60cm is thick (1 meter or more). This injected water is conserved in the deep soil layers (60 cm below the soil surface) and used later by the deep root systems of the trees during a long drought period: six months till 3years. During the Drought the trees produce normally using the injected water.
Both: “anticipated irrigation” and “water injection”, are solutions for drought mitigation and for climate change adaptation. The buried diffuser received the following awards and Prizes: UNESCO International Water Prize; Top50 and Top20 Awards from Infodev World Bank.
For more information on the buried diffuser visit the website of the company or contact

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contributor Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.


Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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