Nebraska Farmer Logo

Make drought plan to retain rangeland resilience

The impact of the drought is real, so strategically planning range management is more important than ever.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

May 3, 2023

6 Min Read
Dry, drought-stricken grass
BONE DRY: While there are signs that the dry pattern in the West and Great Plains has been changing for the better, range management after numerous years of drier-than-normal conditions is crucial to the future of grazing lands. Photos by Curt Arens

Drought is just a part of life on the Plains. Last year, at times, 85% of Nebraska was categorized as being in severe to exceptional drought. Surrounding states were fighting the same drought monitor map.

Today, as spring comes along, there are still huge pockets of drought across the West and Great Plains states. How do these continued drought conditions affect rangeland and grazing for this summer?

At a webinar hosted by the University of Nebraska Center for Agricultural Profitability, Mitchell Stephenson, Nebraska Extension range management specialist, highlighted that in the past 30 years Nebraska has experienced difficult drought periods about every 10 years. That would be 2002, 2012 and 2022.

“Scotts Bluff County is in the third year on continuous drought,” Stephenson said. “That impacts rangeland. If we look at last year and the percent of normal precipitation, there were pockets in the western Sandhills that had near-average growing season precipitation. Cool-season grass needs May precipitation. Warm-season grass needs rain in July. They both need moisture in June.

“It’s important to think through the cycle of good years and bad years, to think about long-term and short-term drought, and flash drought that can be impactful if it occurs during key plant growth windows during the growing season.”

If you consider that drought is defined generally as receiving less than 75% of normal precipitation through the growing months of May, June and July, then Scottsbluff — in Nebraska’s Panhandle, for instance — has experienced drought about 34% of the years since 1950, Stephenson said.

Valentine, in the northern Sandhills along the South Dakota border, experienced below 75% of average about 25% of the time. The effect of drought depends on whether it is a single year, which most rangeland can tolerate — or if it is multiple years and a cumulative impact — because that can really influence plant biomass.

The good news is that the climate prediction center suggests we might be moving into a El Nino neutral pattern, where La Nina has ended, with forecasts that predict drought conditions will improve in Nebraska and other surrounding regions. The drought might remain, but conditions should improve.

Impact of grazing intensity

“There is a strong influence of grazing intensity on belowground biomass and plant communities,” Stephenson said.

In a study conducted at the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey in the seven or eight years of drought in the 1930s, although the drought persisted from early in the decade into the late parts of the decade, the occurrence of little bluestem grass dropped as the drought subsided in the late 1930s into the early 1940s.

“Reports in the 1940s and ‘50s showed a 90% to 100% loss of little bluestem in some areas,” Stephenson noted. “That shows a potential long-term impact of drought on plant communities, and we haven’t seen losses like that since.”

If you think about roots and response during drought, the plant uses carbohydrate reserves in the spring to start growth. Once leaf material appears, it can take over and put more leaves on the plant and replenish carbohydrate reserves back into the root.

“This is the cycle, year in and year out,” Stephenson said. “Droughts occur, often stunting growth, so the plants are not able to put back into biomass, and this impacts the root area below the ground. If you have healthy, vibrant plants in the ecosystem, even in a grazed system, the plants typically can withstand grazing and drought.”

Since 2001, there have been about five years of less-than-normal forage production at UNL Barta Brothers Ranch (BBR) near Rose, Neb.

“There were three times the difference in forage production between the year of the lowest production and the highest,” Stephenson said. “Just look at August 2012, which was one of the worst droughts. It was fairly short term, but one of the worst and it had big implications.

“There was a huge flush of forbs like sunflowers, lambsquarter and others the following year in 2013. In fact, forbs made up 60% of the total biomass. Grasses had reduced vigor, and there likely was an increase in nitrates in the soil.”

This is indicative of rangeland response after a year of severe drought.

Plant production can be visualized often by mid-June, because by mid-June at BBR, about 60% of the total forage growth of the season had already been achieved. This can fluctuate between 40% and 90% in wet and dry years, respectively.

Through this research, Stephenson pointed to factors that can help decide grazing strategies in any given year.

“As we collect more and more data, we continue to look at precipitation variables and how they might impact plant communities,” he said. “Our models suggest about 79 more pounds of production per acre for every day during May, June and July that at least 0.1 [inch of] precipitation falls. This can be used for predictive purposes. Sandhills rangeland appears to need frequent precipitation events to continue to grow plant biomass during the growing season.”

Drought planning

Planning for drought and the subsequent years afterward are crucial in maintaining healthy rangelands through dry and wet cycles.

“We must have flexibility based on what we see,” Stephenson said. “If you look at 2002, at BBR, we needed about 100% more acres to graze the same number of cow-calf pairs based on the amount of biomass in that year, just because we had so little production that year.”

Stephenson said that if we start out dry in May and early June, it is doubtful that we will make up what is needed in late June and early July.

“Use this information to make informed decisions,” he said. “Is it likely to make this up? Make the decisions early rather than later and hope that it rains.”

Key dates of action include understanding what the forage resources are before grazing — if the previous year was drought, normal or above normal. Other key dates of assessment include April 15, May 15 and June 15. Drought planning includes looking at a flow plan and making informed decisions accordingly.

“If we have a drought year where we are only growing 850 to 1,000 pounds total forage, we aren’t growing enough biomass to even leave half as we would recommend in a ‘normal’ year,” Stephenson said.

He recommended being flexible, trying to leave enough residual growth for other years and shoot for a target amount, leaving enough to accomplish photosynthesis, retain ground cover and structure.

Under a rotational grazing plan, deferred grazing — where paddocks are only grazed once per year in rotation with other paddocks — means that in one out of every five years, that paddock will only be grazed during the dormant season. Understanding the timing of grazing along with the distribution of grazing, trying to allow cattle to graze underutilized portions of the rangeland, can help build more resilient plant communities, Stephenson said.

Planning resources

There are a number of resources available to producers to help in developing grazing and drought outlooks into this season. Here are just a few:

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like