Managed Grazing for Drought Resilience
While drought has always been a part of ranching, it is becoming more and more of a regular occurrence for graziers and pasture managers. Possessing the knowledge and tools to position your operation relative to drought, and the decisions you make when it occurs, will ultimately determine whether your operation succeeds or fails.
Drought affects the land, the livestock, the money and people involved with a farm or ranch. To prepare and mitigate for risks, an effective drought plan must target all these areas.
The ranch capital triangle developed by stockmanship and livestock-marketing expert, Bud Williams, is useful when visualizing the critical components in livestock farm and ranch operations.
The sides of the triangle represent the three main components necessary to run a ranch – grass, money and livestock.
"Ranchers can't go broke with too much money or grass, but they sure can have too many livestock," said Williams. "Most ranchers love their cattle and hate their grass … it should be opposite."
Williams was trying to convey the concept that during poor grass conditions, such as drought, livestock should be shifted into cash (i.e.: destocking). When good grass conditions return, cash can be shifted back into livestock. This strategy is just one of many that go into developing an effective drought plan.
Developing and maintaining this plan is vital to achieving drought resilience. Drought plans address how an operation recognizes and responds to drought. They should also contain triggers to phase in response actions according to severity of drought levels.
In addition to a drought plan, developing and maintaining land in a desirable ecological state will help strengthen an operation's preparedness for drought. In other words, one should expect their land to be in a similar condition exiting a drought as it was entering.
This is done through good grazing management which leaves adequate residual forage, in turn increasing litter cover on the soil surface and organic matter in the soil. Dominant forage species of pastures and rangelands can also be shifted to a more desirable, drought-resistant state by taking advantage of livestock's selective grazing tendencies.
Having a reliable land-monitoring system in place will help producers understand how management decisions affect the land and when it is necessary to make changes. Components of this land-monitoring system will include a grazing budget, mapping tools, knowledge of critical rainfall dates and precipitation tracking throughout the grazing season.
A grazing budget assists in maintaining land in a healthy state and allows producers to measure and record available forage in pastures. This information is then used to budget the highest-quality feed to the animals with greatest nutrient demands. By budgeting for only what forage is available, risk of overgrazing is greatly reduced.
Along with knowing what is currently available in forage inventory, grazing budgeting acts as another trigger for drought plan implementation. It is tempting to want to provide supplemental feed to livestock when feed runs low during drought, but it is not the most economical decision. Drought feeding is expensive and without an idea of how long the drought will last, producers may end up paying for livestock many times over. Drought feeding, more times than not, only leads to overstocked grazing lands, deteriorated pastures and checkbooks in the red.
Producers can use mapping tools such as Google Earth to create a 'living' map of their operation. Through this application it is possible to map fences, paddocks, and watering systems and track grazing moves. Many universities and ranch consulting firms offer free or low-cost training on how to use Google Earth for ranch mapping.
In addition to budgeting grazing and mapping, knowing critical rainfall dates for your region and monitoring precipitation are necessary for successful and timely implementation of a drought plan. A critical rainfall date is one date by which, if it hasn't rained, you know you are in trouble (i.e.: you aren't going to have enough forage). These dates are the triggers which should signal farm and ranch managers to move their drought plan into the next phase.
Critical rainfall dates are set by linking precipitation patterns and amounts with plant growth windows for dominant forage species in pastures. During these plant growth windows precipitation and soil moisture are most vital just prior to and during the growth period.
Tracking moisture will assist in determining when an operation has reached a critical rainfall date and if action needs to be taken. Rain gauges dispersed throughout pastures and grazing areas are useful tools to monitor moisture. This information can then be used to keep a running rainfall total for the operation. Records should begin in October to reflect moisture accumulation or deficits experienced during winter months.
Additional online resources such as SNOTEL data from NRCS's National Water and Climate Center (http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/snow/) can also be a helpful tool for producers to track moisture in their region.
It is important to note throughout most, if not all, drought experiences, destocking may be necessary to keep lands functioning in a healthy state. Have a destocking plan in writing along with the drought plan. While it may sound like the worst-case scenario, this practice is one of the most important in drought management. By knowing when to quit, producers cut their losses and ensure the sustainability of their livelihoods.
With the increasing prevalence of drought across the nation today, producers cannot afford to forego a drought management plan. Proactive management will go a long way in mitigating the risks involved. Tough times like drought don't last, but being prepared for them will make the circumstances much easier to handle when they do arise.
Additional drought condition and planning information can be found here:
U.S. Drought Monitor (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/)
National Drought Mitigation Center (http://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan/Overview.aspx)
Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.