To lessen impacts of future droughts, we need to develop a management plan with what we have learned from this one. The weather can be described in most states as, “continuous drought with intermittent floods,” so it makes sense to write a drought management plan to reduce risk.
The Society for Range Management reports, “A strategic objective of every ranch should be to strive for drought resilience. Aspects of drought include how a ranch operation will maintain natural resources, production, financial health, customer relations and lifestyle. Drought planning is essentially part of a larger vision for a ranch. This vision might include the importance of native grass, livestock, wildlife, and people in its overall goals.”
Adequate supplies of forage are essential for keeping a ranch out of debt during drought. Over-grazing is a key factor in making a ranch vulnerable to dry weather. If pastures are grazed to the ground, the plants are depleted of their carbohydrate reserves that produce re-growth. Leafy material should always be left on plants to keep the ground cool, stimulate soil micro-organisms, allow the plants to manufacture carbohydrates, reduce runoff and encourage water infiltration into the soil.
“Livestock stocking rates are the most important management decision affecting the ranching business and the rangeland resource,” wrote the late Dr. Tommy Welch, Texas A&M University. “Managers of rangeland constantly face the problem of balancing animal demands with a fluctuating forage supply. Forage demand must balance with forage availability if range plants are to be effectively converted to animal production while the range production capability is maintained or improved. Timely stocking rate adjustments improve economic benefits and minimize dramatic stocking rate adjustments during a drought.”
“Stocking rate is defined as the number of animals on a given amount of land over a certain period of time,” says Dr. Terrence Bidwell, Oklahoma State University. “Carrying capacity is the stocking rate that is sustainable over time per unit of land area. A critical factor to evaluate is how well the stocking rate agrees with the carrying capacity of the land.”
One of the first steps in drafting a drought management plan is to inventory the forage supply. There are various ways to obtain a forage inventory and help can be obtained by contacting the local United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) office or your county agricultural extension specialist. These agencies can also assist in determining the carrying capacity using the forage inventory. The carrying capacity should be conservative to allow for drought.
Carrying capacity is often enhanced through a pasture rotation system that allows some of the pastures to be vacant while the others are utilized. Allowing pastures to rest gives them a chance to renew soil health and plant vigor that results in better forage production. The USDA-NRCS assists ranchers in drafting pasture rotation systems that could become part of the drought management plan.
“Providing adequate water to livestock is usually seen as one of the largest obstacles to starting a rotational grazing plan,” reports the Ohio State University Extension Service. “Many producers use lanes to provide access to a central watering location, but the ideal situation is to have water available in every paddock. Economic analyses of grazing systems indicate that money spent to provide water to several central locations or to each paddock generates rapid repayment due to increased animal productivity and better utilization of pasture forage which decreases feed costs.”
Dr. Jim Gerrish and co-workers at the Forage Systems Research Center in Missouri studied the distance beef cattle travel to water and the effects on grazing distribution and pasture utilization. In a160-acre pasture, these researchers found that animal carrying capacity could be increased an additional 14 percent by simply keeping livestock within 800 feet of water. Carrying capacity was increased due to better pasture utilization, which permitted more forage to be harvested as compared to systems where livestock had to travel more than 800 feet to water.”
Water sources for cattle can be streams, rivers, springs, lakes, ponds and wells. Access to natural bodies of water and ponds must be controlled to maintain structure integrity and water quality. Water can be delivered to troughs through piping by gravity, siphoning or pumping. Watering systems need to be designed as part of the pasture rotation plan. Based on need, the plan may include digging new wells or ponds.
In managing the herd for drought, it is important to cull non-producing animals annually after pregnancy testing bred cows and conducting bull breeding soundness exams (BSE). Herd size should be kept in balance with the current pasture carrying capacity at all times. The management plan should contain a culling strategy for producing animals that allows for retention of a genetic pool for rebuilding the herd following a drought. Consider developing herd genetics that increase water and forage utilization efficacy. An adjustable weaning schedule should also be included in the management plan, based on declining forage supplies during drought.
Locate and list available alternate feeds in the drought management plan such as distiller’s grains, ammoniated wheat straw, oat straw, corn stalks or other crop residues. A good investment may be a hayshed for storing hay when it can be obtained for an acceptable price. Hay will last indefinitely under a roof.
Every drought management plan needs a financial section that discusses money management before and during drought. Financial risk can be minimized with saving accounts, investments outside the ranch and insurance. Advisers recommend cost analyses to help ranchers determine the short- and long-term tradeoffs of management decisions.
Executing a well-designed drought management plan will help maintain customer relations and life style during the no-rainfall periods.