Over the years I have written several articles dealing with drought and watching the USDA Drought Monitor tells me it is time to bring up the topic again.
Large areas of the country have been in drought for periods ranging from one to six years and new areas of drought are forming.
We cannot prevent drought but we can prevent at least some of its bad effects. We can plan to deal with anything that we can predict. Planning to reduce the effects of drought starts with realizing that drought is normal – it will happen. The question is when and how bad.
How often and how bad is strongly influenced by location; some areas are much more drought-prone than others – the US weather bureau says that the area around San Angelo, Texas, which has an average of about 20 inches of rain a year, is in drought condition 70% of the time. El Paso, which receives about nine inches on average, is much less frequently in drought.
Drought is more than just dry weather; it is a severe reduction from the average precipitation. Knowing the likelihood of drought in your area is vital to being able develop a good drought plan. The weather bureau has rainfall records going back for many years: Use them to determine the probability of drought for your area.
Planning for drought divides into two parts:
1) What needs to be done before drought starts
2) What needs to be done after drought starts
Do everything in your power to improve the health and vigor of your land. Use good grazing management and avoid any practice that damages the eco building blocks. The water cycle involves the percentage of precipitation that becomes useful to plants. The nutrient cycles involve the amount of mineral nutrients that stay in and remain useful to the system. The energy flow is the amount of solar energy that flows through the system.
Develop water sources and watering points well in excess of what you think you will need. It is frustrating to have grass that you can’t use because the tank is dry. When developing water, keep in mind subdivisions that could be added in the future.
Develop and keep updated a written plan detailing what will be done in what sequence to reduce the demand for forage with the least possible financial loss. What animals will be removed when. Maintain a “to be culled” list and add animals as problems occur. Build flexibility into your stocking rate in proportion to the likelihood of drought. In areas of frequent drought at least part of the stocking rate should be made up of animals that can be moved quickly, or not purchased, if drought occurs.
Having part of the stocking rate made up of stocker animals works for several reasons but you can also divide the herd into “A” group and “B” group based on age, size, temperament or other considerations and have, at hand, a group of animals that can be sorted off and sold immediately without inadvertently selling some of your best animals. Do not separate these into two herds but rather use different color ear tags or just record individual numbers. The sooner the demand for forage is reduced, the more animals can be carried through the drought.
Develop a “not rainy day” fund that will provide a financial cushion to be used – not to buy feed during the drought – but to re-stock and meet needs after the drought. If it is not possible to build this fund when conditions are good, the entire operation should be examined as to financial viability.
After drought starts
As soon as you recognize that you are – or will be – in drought, reduce demand for forage by reducing numbers and/or reducing the weight of animals carried! To do this, you must know when you normally grow grass. If growing conditions are poor going into this period, some degree of forage reduction is almost certain.
Increase the amount of recovery time when forages are protected from grazing. The best way to do this is to increase the number of paddocks per herd and the cheapest way to build paddock numbers is to reduce the number of herds: Put as many of the animals as is feasible into one herd. Using temporary fence to increase the number of paddocks available can both increase grazing efficiency and increase growing conditions for the forage. The key to good animal performance, especially on substandard forage, is short graze periods.
Perhaps the most important point in this article: remove animals from land that can no longer feed them. In every drought, producers severely damage themselves financially and their land ecologically by keeping animals on land that has lost the ability to feed them.
Drought does not destroy grassland but our management during and after drought quite frequently does. This article is a quick look at a complex situation; in How to Not go Broke Ranching, I devote an entire chapter to the subject.