When a once-in-300-years drought hit southwest Nebraska two years ago, Marlene Moore and Dwight Maseberg had a drought plan that required destocking the ranch. They followed it successfully, but their problem was in restocking.

The husband-wife team manages a 6,800-acre ranch nestled in a pocket of breaks and canyons between thousands of acres of cornfields south of Wallace, NE.

They are management-intensive graziers who are steadily improving their land and forage base, and thereby increasing the number of cattle they can run. When Marlene took over the ranch after her grandfather died in 1982, she began improving water supplies, fencing and her knowledge about grazing and business management.

By the time the drought hit in 2002, she and Dwight estimate they'd increased the ranch's production by 50% — a figure they say continues growing today.

When drought hit, however, none of that mattered. It was hot, there was no rain and they were quickly running out of forage.

They started the season with good subsoil moisture. On April 1, one of Marlene's “critical dates” for forage condition, they had good subsoil moisture to 48 in. They brought the cows home off cornstalks in mid-April like always, but in May a snowstorm and a hard freeze hit, followed by 100° F weather.

Destocking the herd

In short order, the forage quit regrowing after the cows left each paddock. They destocked 10% of the herd, selling pregnant and dry cows and any poor producers.

In early June, Marlene and Dwight were gone five days, and when they came home it looked brown as winter.

“I knew we were in trouble. The grass was completely dormant,” Marlene says. She does most of the forage budgeting and planning for the family-held corporation.

“If my normal regrowth was 100%, then I had 30% regrowth on a quarter to a third of the ranch. Maybe half the ranch had 15-20% regrowth, and the rest had no regrowth,” she says.

She began to calculate cow-days of forage left in front of the two herds. The target was to keep a marketable package of calves until fall. So again, the couple destocked, culling the youngest or smallest pairs.

As they were calving in late April and May, forage quality tested very high; the cows and calves would do well on the dormant preserved forage, despite the oppressive heat and lousy weather outlook. Because the grass was dormant, Marlene didn't think it would damage the grass if they harvested almost all of it.

By the end of June, they'd destocked 30% of the herd and were laying plans to cut even more if the weather didn't change. They weaned early and sold the calf crop in September, five weeks earlier than normal. They also sold the bulls and took the cows to cornstalks three weeks early — late October instead of mid-November.

By Jan. 15, they'd sold all the cows because the weather had continued to be dry and subsoil moisture was still void. Their cow herd averaged 10 years old and calf prices were only fair, so Marlene says adding the additional cost of rented grass or feed assured a loss — and there was no way to know how long the drought would last.

All decisions were made according to their drought plan, which they'd laid out years before. As graduates of the Stan Parsons' “Ranching for Profit” schools, they've long agreed that you can't profitably feed your way out of a drought, as there are no guarantees when the drought will end.

Marlene and Dwight are also active in the Executive Link program that Parsons started amongst the graduates. The membership allows them to hobnob with some top, outside-the-box, ranch-management thinkers. They and most of the managers they know agree with Dave Pratt, current owner of the Ranching for Profit schools, that the only way to deal with ongoing drought is to destock. The worse the drought, the deeper the destocking.

These destocking plans always involve calculating days of forage left ahead of the herd, along with estimated rates of forage regrowth. Forage production is then weighed against expected consumption by herd size and typical days of grazing in each paddock in past years.

Restructuring the plan

After Dwight and Marlene sold the rest of the cattle, they used the extra time to rethink and restructure their business with a 20-year outlook. They traveled, attended several schools and seminars, visited other ranches, and discussed the issues of drought management and ranch structure with trusted associates.

Good rains came the next spring. The annual cool-season grasses leapt ahead of everything else, and the early growing season was a good one. By fall, Marlene and Dwight decided to bring in a fairly large number of outside cows and “flash graze” them in rapid rotation through the paddocks. They took approximately one third the normal annual forage off the ranch in that time, and then sent the cattle to corn stalks for the winter. In mid-November and December, Marlene bought back-bred cows. These cows also went to cornstalks for the winter.

They calculate the drought cost them about 20% of their net equity, which isn't a bad performance in such a severe event. Today, they're back on track and believe the forage looks better than ever, which is something few ranchers can honestly claim after a drought.

Yet the couple say they should have restocked sooner. The annual cool-season grasses grew too dominant. Alleliopathy set in, suppressing recovery of warm-season forages Marlene and Dwight worked hard to foster with good grazing management.

When it came time to restock, the logistical decisions weren't the problem. Subsoil moisture was recharged; the land and its forage were ready to recover almost fully because it had been rested instead of abused; and grazing and rainfall records from past years, together with current forage budgeting, indicated how many grazing days the ranch was producing. In short, they knew how many cattle they could run.

The restocking problem Marlene and Dwight suffered was twofold. First, they wrestled mightily with what the drought had done to their psyche.

“We were so debilitated by what we'd been through and what we'd seen that at first we couldn't bring ourselves to bring cattle back on the land,” he says.

The second part wasn't easily dealt with, either. Record fed-cattle prices and the BSE scare in Canada in spring 2003 shocked cow prices to new highs. That made the decision to restock more difficult, Marlene says.

“I was used to buying cows for $500. That spring, anything you bought, if it could walk, was bringing $700 or $800,” she says.

Interest rates were pathetic and the proceeds from selling out the herd weren't making any money; plus, the fixed ranch expenses kept on ticking. Those things were nagging the couple to repurchase cattle, in addition to IRS time limitations on proceeds from drought sales. They were in a hot pressure-cooker — afraid to take off the lid and add more fodder for fear of the effects.

In retrospect, the couple says, they needed a drought restocking plan to counter their drought destocking plan — something to help them put their feelings aside and just act.

Alan Newport is a freelance writer based in Carnegie, OK.

Tips for forming a plan

In the months following the drought, Marlene Moore and Dwight Maseberg came up with additional thoughts on destocking and restocking, and on additional management tips during a drought. They share these in the hope others can learn the lessons they gleaned.

  • Above all, get help from trusted associates who aren't in drought. Get off the ranch with these people and discuss issues, including destocking and restocking decisions.

  • Keep a positive attitude and make decisions early, according to your predetermined drought plan.

  • Don't stock your ranch totally with cows. Have a class of livestock, such as stocker cattle or dry cows, that you can send somewhere else or more easily sell. They should be perhaps 20-30% of your total stocking rate. Possible drought options might include trucking them to a non-drought area for grazing or sending them to backgrounding and/or a feedlot.

  • Consider options you normally wouldn't. An example for cows might be renting grass, grazing standing corn or other irrigated crops, or the feedlot. But, make everything a business decision. Seek profitability or minimize losses.

  • Once you destock, don't let your water tanks go dry. They may crack and leak.

“If you suffer the pain of a drought, you should also learn lessons from it,” Marlene says. “We know our grass is our future and our true wealth. Cows can be replaced, but damaged range could take years to recover.”

Destocking is nature's way

Though they believe they did the right things in the face of drought, Marlene Moore and Dwight Maseberg saw some ecological declines in their resource base.

Their goals had been to push grass succession upward toward the warm-season tallgrasses, and to increase the component of warm-season in comparison with cool-season forages, which once accounted for more than 60% of the total forage mix. They were succeeding at both goals.

Nonetheless, the drought thinned some plants and hurt certain areas on the ranch worse than others.

“We lost a lot of grass infrastructure on the south-facing slopes,” Marlene says. “I thought we did it with cattle, but then I started looking in the ditches along the road.”

Perhaps above all, the couple didn't want to damage the water cycle by denuding all the forage and increasing runoff. Bare ground doesn't catch nearly the rainfall that covered soil does, nor can it support the biological life underground that feeds the roots and increases plant life.

The purpose of destocking isn't only to avoid excessive feed costs. It's to protect the resource base and be ready for a recovery when the drought ends. That is nature's way, too, since most herding animals leave a drought-stricken area. When rains return, so do the grazing animals.