Graze Better, Plan Ahead for Drought Resilience
In today’s ever-changing climate, it’s nearly impossible to find a producer who hasn’t felt the effects of drought to some degree or another. According to Hugh Aljoe, Director of Producer Relations at the Noble Research Institute, droughts, and especially flash droughts, are becoming more prevalent. In addition, a quick look at the U.S. Drought Monitor will show nearly every part of the southwest and western United States is currently either short on water or into some degree of drought mode.
“The big thing we’ve noticed over the past 20 years is that weather is becoming less predictable, more variable, and we are observing more extremes,” says Aljoe. “You rarely have years that are even near 5 to 10 percent of average rainfall. It’s more difficult to predict much less know what the long-term average is going to be.”
Looking at long-term trends in the South and Southeast, Aljoe explains while rainfall patterns on average have not changed much, temperatures are rising.
“If you go to the East or West coast, populations have increased, and you have a lot more impact on the land resources plus the contributions man might have,” says Aljoe. “I think it impacts the climate to some degree.”
For ranchers and, more specifically, cow-calf producers, Aljoe says, droughts prove a challenge because ranchers are not only invested in the land, but in their livestock as well. Producers tend to be more optimistic by nature, says Aljoe.
“We remember the good years and the bad years, but we always want to manage for the good years,” says Aljoe. “You know, ‘How many head can I run?’ And, more is always better than less.”
When looking at drought from a cattle ranching perspective, Aljoe points out, it’s the unwillingness to change as the environment changes which leads to many producers facing drought. For example, stocker operators have options because they intend to market cattle within a short season. It is the long-term planning, or lack thereof, where cow-calf operators run into problems in a drought.
Start with grazing management
So, what can ranchers do to improve their odds going into or living through a drought? Grazing management is a good place to start, says Aljoe.
“I’m talking planned, managed grazing,” says Aljoe. “When you’re doing that, you have a good understanding of what your seasonal expectations for your forages will be. You have a good management plan for your pasture and livestock. You’re looking at things from a systems approach and you have mechanisms in place, so you can monitor changes that do occur. You also have inventories of your pastures, livestock, moisture, and projections for what you need those things to be. This gives you a basis to manage from.”
Good grazing management begins with the land resource, says Aljoe, and incorporates adaptivity for forage growth, seasonal and environmental changes, necessary rest/recovery periods, and livestock nutritional needs. Having a strategy which considers all of these factors in place is the best insurance for drought, he explains.
“It gives you the confidence to know where you are, where you need to be, and what it’s going to take to get to where you project or hope to be,” says Aljoe.
Have a drought plan
Taking things to the next level, Aljoe says, producers should then incorporate their grazing strategy into a drought plan. This begins with knowing critical dates relevant to the growth season.
For example, Aljoe says, for the Southern Great Plains he knows he can expect about 30% of his annual forage production to have occurred by June 1st. By July 1st, it should be 60 to 70%. He also knows what his annual rainfall looks like and that his region typically will have big rainfall events in May and June, and possibly April too.
Knowing this information, Aljoe says if he’s missing annual rainfall and not hitting those projections, he knows in advance that he will be behind on moisture in the growing season and can adjust his management early before drought sets in.
“You have these timelines using managed grazing, and if you know what your livestock demand is going to be through each of those phases, you can project your surplus or your shortcomings,” says Aljoe. “People with a good management plan are projecting months ahead and have some sort of plan in mind that if conditions continue to lean toward drought they have options.”
Aljoe suggests producers consider the following four key components when developing a drought plan:
- Have an adequate inventory of pastures by forage type with projections of what production will be for each.
- Know the critical dates when forage growth occurs, and the relative amount.
- Additionally, know the forage demand, what the number of livestock by class are going to be throughout the grazing season. In other words, know which months when there will be a deficit in forage growth and when a surplus can be expected. In addition, knowledge of which forage types are best utilized by each class of cattle can be helpful. (Note: Matching and overlaying #3 with #2 will give you an idea of what to expect demand to be under normal circumstances.)
- Lastly, know what the water year (i.e., annual precipitation) looks like and tie this information back into the data from numbers 1 through 3.
The water year
Expanding on the water year concept, Aljoe says, when he looks at the water year, he knows it begins in October.
“That’s when everything shuts down and the water begins to rebuild in the soil profile,” says Aljoe. “I know from October through March there is very little regrowth and by the time I get to April, I should have a certain amount of water stored in the soil.”
Aljoe explains that when a drought plan is in place, a producer should be able to look at the annual projections for forage production and the rainfall they have received. Then, they can compare those numbers to what the difference is to average to determine how close they are to what the expected forage production projection for that month is.
“That’s where you actually get to the point you can begin to make informed decisions, either to destock or how much additional forage you may have in a good year,” says Aljoe. “It’s understanding what your ranch and forage base can supply under your current management system in an average year and comparing it to the current year, knowing what the demand is going to look like through the season relative to your forage production, and then understanding that the variability is all dictated by moisture conditions.”
Where to start
Along with implementing managed grazing and a drought plan, knowing your forage base, expected forage productivity, and soil fertility, can improve a ranch’s position to combat drought when and if it occurs. In an introduced or cropped forage pasture, these factors will be vital in making efficient use of the forage base. Soil fertility is not as important in a native range situation.
“You should start with your most productive areas because that’s where you’ll make your biggest impact by managing the grazing,” says Aljoe. “If you have an area that is three times more productive because it’s bottom land or perhaps it is the largest pasture, start there. That’s where you’re going to get the greatest grazing efficiency by implementing some sort of management.”
Additionally, water is a key item in making a grazing plan work.
“You’ve got to have accessible, reliable water at the volume you need for the number of head you’re grazing at any given time in any given season,” says Aljoe.
For producers interested in learning more about managed grazing and setting up a drought plan, Aljoe says, more information is available on the Noble Research Institute website. The Natural Resource Conservation Service and other like agencies, as well as university experts and local extension agents can also be of assistance.
“There is a lot of information out there, but what I have seen work best is tailoring it for your own operation,” says Aljoe. “There’s different tools depending on what works best in your system. Starting with a knowledgeable forage person to help you develop the forage flow and production seasonally, monthly, and annually is a good place to start.”