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.

Taking Action

South Dakota State University Extension range livestock specialist Eric Mousel says a drought plan addresses the following five categories:

Task 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.

Task 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 of “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.

Task 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.

Task 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.

Task 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.

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer and former BEEF Managing Editor based in Spearfish, SD.

Know what you're feeding

If drought forces you to graze or feed low-quality hay — such as that from Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ground, South Dakota State University Extension beef specialist Ken Olson cautions producers that some protein supplementation will likely be necessary.

Forages with 7% or less crude protein are considered low quality because that's below the threshold needed to support microbial activity in the rumen. Moreover, he points out protein supplements aren't just useful for making low-quality forages more digestible; they can be essential for keeping cow performance up — such as conception rates.

“That alone can make up the difference in the cost of the supplement,” Olson says.

He suggests ranchers test any hay (such as CRP or cereal grains) to determine forage quality, then design a supplementation strategy based on availability and economics of the feedstuffs. Supplements that offer the most pounds of protein per dollar offer the best return, Olson says.

His calculations indicate soybean meal is still among the most cost-efficient because of its high crude protein content. Distillers grains can also be efficient if shipping costs pencil out.

Time-Tested Strategies

One of the best ways to weather drought is to learn from “seasoned” ranchers. Such ranchers shared their tactics during a one-day drought-planning seminar last summer in Chadron, NE. Here are highlights from the strategies they believe are most beneficial:

Rotate grazing

During the past 20 years, Marsland, NE, rancher Bruce Troester has cross-fenced his 3,500 acres into about 25 pastures, varying in size from 45-400 acres. Troester says he saves his best pastures for the end of the growing season, so they can grow all summer.

He's also found the small pastures help his herd graze more efficiently and they bounce back faster. He says, “If I was in a pasture season-long, the cows would decimate it. By rotating through my pastures, it gives them time to rest and regrow.”

Likewise, Troester advocates staying off some pastures in the fall to allow them to regrow for the following spring.

“When we do get fall moisture after a drought, you need to keep your cows off some of those pastures, or you're eating next year's grass,” he says.

Early weaning works

Troester says he's weaned some calves in June from the bottom end of his cows, then sold those cows. “It may be only 10-15 head, but it makes a difference,” he says.

Monitor cow size

Kimball, NE, rancher Gary Sheffler is a firm believer in matching cow size to the range environment. His average cow weighs 1,198 lbs., and he says, “I'd like to get lower than that. Two, 1,100-lb. cows can be more profitable raising calves than one 1,700-lb. cow.”

Sheffler's philosophy is also to manage the little things. “My granddad told me it's the little things added up that are important. They can hurt you more than one catastrophe. You have control over the little management problems. You don't over a catastrophe,” he says.

Put out the rain gauge

Pointing out that you can't manage what you don't measure, Sheffler has rain gauges all across his ranch. “They never read the same, and that's important to know,” he says. “And if there is no rain, you'd better make some decisions pretty quick.”

Keep feed costs in check

Supplementing during drought must be well evaluated. It may work in some situations, but it's a huge expense in most.

“It rarely pays to feed your way out of a drought,” says Chuck Butterfield, Chadron State College range management professor.

Having witnessed producers who focus too much on conservation and get in a financial bind, he suggests producers “keep a balance” in drought planning.

Add value

Ranch management experts suggest ranch families should also think outside the box by considering alternative income sources for their ranch, such as guest ranches and tourism to generate extra dollars. They can provide valuable cash flow for years when drought puts a pinch on everything else.