My View From The Country

The Myth Of Managing For Drought

Our livelihood is very dependent on the weather, and specialists are already instructing producers on how to manage if this growing season’s moisture doesn’t materialize.

One of the things I love about ranchers is that they’re optimistic by nature. Of course, you have to be, when two of the biggest drivers of one’s profitability are largely, if not entirely, out of their control – markets and weather. Still, that doesn’t mean we don’t like to talk a whole lot about both of them.

So, I guess it was fitting that university specialists this week began putting out articles for producers to help them prepare for drought. In some areas, moisture conditions are 50% or more below normal. The talk is about delaying turnout, and making plans in case the rains don’t materialize.

Ironically, in most of the areas where the drought is either beginning or continuing, there is no surplus feed. Cattle are being turned out early because exceedingly warm temperatures have started the growing season and producers have few other options.

That’s why drought management is such a misnomer. By its very nature, you are forced to act on faith that the rains will come, and plan for the eventualities if they don’t.

Still, grass availability is tough, and one can’t afford to rent excess grass just in case. Contingency plans can’t be really made until conditions dictate that they are actionable. So, you wait, you lay the groundwork, and you go on faith.

Even at today’s prices, margins are tight; thus, maintaining excess capacity as a buffer isn’t a viable option. So, you begin to lay out contingency plans, while watching the sky, but stopping occasionally to bow your head, pray for rain, and work to act in time to prevent too much hardship if it doesn’t.

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

Tim (not verified)
on Apr 27, 2012

Drought management is a misnomer. Management for a drought is not. As in all production systems, man-made or natural, the capacity of the production unit, or the capital, is based on how well that capital is managed and then the inputs. A factory can not produce a whole lot very efficiently if its conveyor belts are degraded. A pasture cannot produce a whole lot of forage if its roots are short. Since cows know how to eat grass, one only has to move the cows around to grass. But since cows do not know how to manage the grass and its roots, that if the rancher's job; to keep the factory in tip top shape, regardless of the weather. Turning cows out on short pasture is running the conveyor belt til it tears in two.

Dennis Hancock (not verified)
on Apr 27, 2012

There's nothing that can be done to prevent a drought. But, there are things that can be done to minimize the long-term damage we do to our farm and genetic pool. Don't overgraze the whole farm. Confine the damage to a small area while occasionally grazing the good areas if enough grass is present. Make preps to wean early. Develop a cull priority. Use it if you have to. Don't let optimism overtake your common sense.

on Apr 27, 2012

In my opinion, this is an excellent outline for developing an operational plan to deal with drought. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Steve Hammack (not verified)
on Apr 27, 2012

Managing during drought is difficult or prohibitively costly if you went into the drought overstocked or even stocked for the long-term average. More people should consider stocking at less than average capacity and then, during better times, retaining some calves beyond weaning to graze the excess forage.

Jeremiah (not verified)
on Apr 27, 2012

I would think the biggest thing is developing water recources when ever a person can put a few extra dollars out. I have seen cows do pretty well short on grass but they realy go down hill fast with out a good drink. My grand fathers view was that a lot of grass and good water are the same thing as a savings account paying the intrest to stay in bussines when things are bad.

Rex Peterson (not verified)
on Apr 30, 2012

Drought plan ideas.
1. Manage grass to improve root structure. Rest rotation and dormant season grazing help do this.
2. Keep part of the herd assets in a way that can easily be disposed of without culling your good genetics. Stocker operation in addition to cows is one way to manage for drought...either don't stock during and after a drought or sell before the end of the season. Another option is keeping calves to eat winter feed which can be sold soon after weaning or even weaned early in the event of a drought.
3. Divert farm ground to grazing resource with annual forage. This can be a bust as a drought develops but works well at the end of a drought to help get pastures back in shape.

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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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