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Todd Mortenson Collette Kessler, SD NRCS
GRASS CHECK: Todd Mortenson checks the amount of grass remaining one of his pastures after it was grazed. He aims to always leave half so that roots stay healthy and recover quickly after a drought.

Planning for the next drought: 3 steps to get ready for dry times

A South Dakota rancher shares the precautions he takes before the weather ever starts to get dry.

Will there be a drought again next year? No one knows for sure. But some farmers and ranchers are preparing for its return.

“I plan on a drought occurring on my ranch once every five years,” says Todd Mortenson, Hayes, S.D. “I also expect to see a multiple-year drought once every 10-15 years. This could be that year.”

But Mortenson — a cow-calf producer — plans to be ready. He always leaves half of his grass ungrazed because grass makes grass. Removing more than 50% of the leaves ultimately weakens the roots, which makes the grass slower to respond when the rains return.

Mortenson also tries to maintain a two-year-stockpile of hay. When he doesn’t think he will have enough grass or hay, he’ll cull cows early. He also might wean calves early. He’ll move cows to other farms or ranches that have grass, or put them in a feedlot. It costs him less to move the cows than to haul hay to the ranch.

Even in wet years, Mortenson keeps in touch with farmers and ranchers who have extra grass and will take his cows when he is short of forage.

“I don’t start looking for a place to move cattle when it starts getting dry,” he says. “It’s too late then."

NEXT: How a North Dakota ranch tripled forage production.

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