Look Ahead, Monitor Land to Develop Best Grazing Contingency Plans
The drought and prevalence of wildfires across much of the Western United States throughout 2015 drove home the need for grazing contingency plans.
Though many try, even meteorological professionals cannot with certainty predict next year's weather. Graziers must be ready with a plan to mitigate risky times they may encounter.
Grazing contingency plans, while mainly used in drought planning, are useful and should be developed to combat the challenges the many other uncontrollable events such as excessive mud or forage growth and extreme weather events like blizzards and ice storms can bring.
"There are so many variables to this whole grazing gig," says Wyoming rancher, Charley Orchard. "So much is weather-related."
Orchard, who is no stranger to planning ahead, is the fourth-generation to ranch on his family's operation near Ten Sleep nestled in the Bighorn Basin of north central Wyoming. He is well-known for his 20 plus years of work developing practical, effective land monitoring strategies land owners can put to work in the field to help them make better management decisions through his consulting firm Land EKG, Inc.
"The purpose behind contingency planning is to give you some margin or cushion with your grazing planning while trying to optimize the use of pasture lands," says Orchard.
"Think of it like this," Orchard explains, "if things stay mild, this is the plan. If something else, like a snowstorm, happens you do this. Ultimately, in one way or another, though it's still going to boil down to some kind of economics."
To save money, Orchard tries to graze his approximately 1000 head mother cow herd, replacements, yearlings, and stocker cattle as much as possible.
"If we graze we don't have to feed hay," says Orchard, "and if we have to feed hay that's more expensive than just grazing."
In the big picture, Orchard explains the actions a contingency plan calls for will be determined by economics. However, another part of the strategy he says is also to do so while maintaining good husbandry practices for the livestock and stewardship of the land they graze.
Orchard concentrates most of his time on ranching these days and regularly uses many of the same strategies he has taught other producers over the years. He plans out his grazing for both the growing season (June thru October) and the dormant season (November thru May). He notes the growing season leaves a slightly larger margin for error because, as long as there is adequate moisture, forages will continue growing. Concurrently, the dormant season during winter, while more static, brings with it the challenging variables of snow and ice and therefore still merits planning.
An important factor Orchard considers in his contingency planning is long-term weather forecasting. He consults resources like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Drought Monitor as resources to help plan his upcoming grazing season.
Given his locale in a more arid, lower rainfall part of the country, Orchard does most of his grazing and contingency planning on a "worst case" scenario basis. Through his experience over the years, he has found NOAA's long-term forecast predictions particularly useful for his region.
"We're actually planning our 2016 growing season grazing right now and developing the plan relative to what our 2017 winter grazing situation may be," says Orchard. "We're planning way down the road because we had good production last year."
With the drought tendency high in his area going into spring this year, one of Orchard's contingency plans is to skip grazing one of his best winter pasture areas completely during the current grazing season. This would give the pasture a complete rest of nearly 2 years before his cattle go back to graze it in the winter of 2017.
"It is not uncommon (in my area) to have a drought and a bad winter following," says Orchard.
This extra rested pasture, along with the others he usually stockpiles, will give Orchard the emergency stockpile he will need if the conditions forecasted occur.
In addition to weather forecasts, land monitoring data which Orchard collects at monitoring sites located across his ranch also assist him in formulating his grazing and contingency plans.
"It (monitoring data) lets us actually know what we're dealing with," says Orchard, "and when we've tied that into a long-term analysis of forage production relative to rainfall, we know what our outcome has been which gives us some decent forecasting ability going forward."
Some of the monitoring factors Orchard pays attention to include litter cover and bare ground. He measures forage production and utilization by periodically clipping forage samples throughout the grazing season and use of grazing cages to determine utilization. In addition, he tracks annual rainfall and seasonal wildlife patterns of migratory animals such as pronghorn and elk which share the land with his cattle.
"We couldn't do it (plan ahead) without the monitoring," says Orchard. "Just going out and trying to guess whether we have more grass here this year than last year? You just can't do it."
Orchard has approximately 20 monitoring sites scattered across 40,000 acres, that's about one site per 2,000 acres. While he says on one hand he wishes he had more because it would be more representative of the landscape, he has found it is neither realistic nor practical for him from a real-world standpoint to try to collect information from more sites than he currently has.
"It kind of comes back to that thing, that 60 or 70 percent of something beats the heck out of zero percent or 100 percent of nothing," says Orchard.
For those not yet monitoring their land, Orchard explains a monitoring program can start with simple steps such as tracking precipitation via rain gauges at multiple locations across the ranch and keeping good grazing records. Using soil surveys and visually estimating forage production can also be helpful. Advanced monitoring tactics include collecting multiple forage samples in pastures to calculate production, setting up permanent monitoring stations throughout your land base, and incorporating photography to record "snapshots" of the landscape across time.
For help with the technical details of land monitoring, Orchard suggests contacting local agents with NRCS, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or university extension. Private-sector companies and some non-profit organizations specializing in land monitoring can also be found in some regions.
No matter the region or circumstances though, Orchard says the important thing with grazing and contingency planning is to start paying attention to the land. Being observant, well-kept records, and making decisions based on what the land is telling you, will help to ensure an operation's sustainability even through the worst-case scenarios.
Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.