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Fodder for Thought

Drought Planning Top Job Is Critical Rainfall Dates

Plan for drought destocking and other needs by knowing relationships of your forage growth and rainfall patterns.


As drought lingers across much of our nation, the importance and necessity of having a drought plan in place should be increasingly obvious for ranch optimization.

As I discussed last week there are several key components in planning and preparation for drought.

Of these components, critical rainfall dates are the absolute core information needed. The dates and rainfall amounts you decide upon will become the trigger points of a drought plan by which management decisions will be made.

An important aspect to note is the necessity for commitment and dedication to these dates. Straying from or postponing action undermines potential success.

It is important to know what to expect relative to "normal conditions" (if they even exist anymore). Data recorded from tracking precipitation with the use of rain gauges placed strategically across the ranch can be used to determine trigger amounts relative to critical dates. In addition, precipitation data gained from sources like SNOTEL and the Western Regional Climate can be used in some cases.

Critical rainfall dates will be 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.

For example, in the northern to central Great Plains annual forage production is dominated by mixtures of short- and mid-grasses. The growth-curve window for these grass types is correlated with total precipitation during May and June. Therefore, critical rainfall dates would be set for during this time period and monitoring of rainfall amounts and available forage would be necessary.

It is necessary to understand dates will sometimes be earlier for cool-season forages and later for warm season forages. However, pasture forage species composition will ultimately determine this. Pastures with mixtures of cool- and warm-season forages will require a different approach.

Having a general idea of dominant forage types and species will assist producers in better pinpointing critical rainfall dates for their ranch. Information of plant growth-curves for many range sites can be self developed or may be available through the National Resources Conservation Service’s Web Soil Survey.

Commonly two or three critical rainfall will be determined for a ranch. These dates will serve as triggers for your drought plan of action. These actions could include increasing rest periods, combining herds, or destocking a set percentage of animals to decrease forage demand to meet available resources.

If you know and adhere to your critical rainfall date plans and combine that with a solid understanding of precipitation patterns and forage growth cycles you should be able to make effective and timely management decisions.

To learn more about understanding and identifying critical rainfall dates the National Drought Mitigation Center’s (NDMI) ‘Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch’ website serves as an invaluable resource for ranchers seeking information on drought planning

In addition, NDMI will be offering a series of monthly webinars starting this week focused on keeping producers apprised of current drought status and discussing specific drought-related topics or tools such as land monitoring, setting critical dates, developing a grazing strategy, and using a drought calculator to assist in stocking decisions. Information on registration for the webinar series can be found here.

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