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The Grazier's Gazette

Survive the ugly face of drought

Alan Newport Heifers in the shade
Long before humans and their hay and feed came on the scene, when water and forage became scarce grazing animals either migrated or died.
Plan ahead by improving the soil-plant-animal complex, destocking early and healing faster after the drought ends.

It seems I spend a lot of time writing about drought but the subject deserves the attention.

Depending on location, drought is either an occasional or a frequently recurring fact of life. Drought is serious, but how we react to it is even more important to our total long-term wellbeing – this includes both our biological capital, which is the health of the soil-plant-animal complex, and our fiscal capital, which is money in the bank.

Once again large areas of the US are suffering serious damage from dry weather. The better we understand what happens in drought, the better we can alleviate its damaging effects. Individually we cannot have much effect on weather on a global scale but there is much we can do to improve the capture and effective utilization of water at our local level, particularly on the soils we manage.

An historical perspective can help us. Drought is a normal occurrence. It has come and gone for eons, starting long before humans came on the scene. So long as natural processes controlled things, when water and forage became scarce, the grazing animals either migrated or died.

Plants went into survival mode – some degree of dormancy and/or retreating into seeds. Because animals were not present to grub the last bit of green from struggling plants and to consume the litter covering the soil surface, when the rains finally returned the plants revived and eventually the animals returned.

The grasslands changed from functional to dormant and back to functional as they had a thousand times before. The grasslands were not permanently damaged by drought. In fact, periodic drought was and is one of the factors that keep the trees at bay and create grasslands.

Even when humans got involved, they had little ability, beyond improving stock water availability, to radically change the situation. It was not until people acquired substitution feed in the form of harvested and preserved hay and grains that they could keep animals on drought stricken ranges. Now, every time we have a drought, the media is full of articles on how to use nontraditional feeds (everything from ammoniated straw to poultry litter) to get animals through the "drought emergency."

In reality, one of the most damaging mistakes a grazier can make -- both financial and ecological -- is to hold stock on pasture that can no longer feed and water them.

Producers would be far better off to move enough stock – either sell or send to somewhere feed is available – to match the reduced growth rate of the drought-stricken range. The worst possible scenario would be to feed the animals in their pasture. There is a vast difference between feeding some protein and/or hay on winter dormant pasture and feeding enough to make up for forage not growing due to dry weather.

Grasslands are destroyed by constant defoliation carried out over time, not by occasional heavy usage. Feeding to replace the forage taken away by drought prolongs the period of stress and permanently damages grasslands. I am convinced that most of the long-term loss of productivity and stability that has occurred to grassland happens during and after droughts. Drought does not kill grassland but our management during drought most certainly does.

Plan survival

Planning to survive the next drought starts with knowing when you grow grass and how vulnerable your area is to drought, then using this information to plan both stocking rate and stocking mix. If you miss rains during what is normally your wet season, some degree of dry weather stress is almost certain. When this happens it is good management to immediately reduce the stock load by moving animals or by securing more grass. The sooner this is done, the more animals you can bring through the drought. More important, your country will not be stressed and the next drought will not hurt as badly.

Also, animals sold before the effects of drought become widely evident will bring better prices. If this advice is followed, it is possible that on occasion drought will turn out to be not as severe as expected and some animals will be sold that we could have kept. Too bad, but how many of us have cow herds that could not be greatly improved by some moderate culling? A good rancher once told me, "We need a drought occasionally to make us prune out the dead wood."

The best drought insurance is to have your country in the best possible condition before drought starts. Effective water cycles, functioning mineral cycles, and strong energy flows are all things that can be encouraged by holistically planned grazing management. When these three ecological processes are operating at high levels, good things happen:

  • More and higher quality feed.
  • Reduced pests and parasites of both plants and animals.
  • Healthier and more productive animals.
  • Fatter bank accounts.

Do all that is feasible to bring about the conditions that promote health in the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex while conditions are good. When the next drought arrives, it will be too late.

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