The best time to implement your ranch grazing management plan for drought? When it’s raining.
Droughts are a slow-moving, sneaky catastrophe for ranchers. By the time drought has settled in for the long haul, it’s typically too late for ranchers, shepherds and pasture-dependent farmers to do much but just survive the financial bleeding.
But having a drought management plan in place allows ranchers to anticipate a drought before it hits. That can mean the difference between merely surviving versus the versatility to quickly adapt your grazing regime, still achieve profitability by culling when it will reap the most benefit and invest in your forage for recovery after the drought has passed.
Managed Intensive Grazing Lays for the Framework for Drought Response
A considerable part of drought management is record-keeping, observation skills and being proactive rather than reactive. Most ranchers that have adopted some form of rotational or intensive grazing already have the “you can look, but can you see” mindset needed to incorporate a drought management plan.
In some cases, struggling with a catastrophic drought has encouraged ranchers to adopt managed grazing practices in the first place.
John Coleman Locke, a Texas-based rancher and a member of the PastureMap's community, told PastureMap’s Ranching Consultant CK Wisniewski that it was the 2011 drought that turned their operation onto managed grazing practices.
“We started getting serious about grazing management during the 2011 drought,” says Locke. “We began resting pastures that had been grazed continuously since the 1940s.” Since switching to intensive grazing management practices, they have increased their stocking density of 100,000 lbs an acre moving cattle 12 times a day.
Intensive rotational grazing already has the rest periods set in place, allowing time for grazed grass to recover, grow deep roots and encourage forage resilience and diversity that are the keys to surviving, and recovering from a drought.
With the foundation laid, it is a matter of preparing for drought, monitoring for a looming drought event, and then implementing your drought action plan as needed.
Before the Drought Invest in Your Pasture Health and Infrastructure
South-central Kansas intensive rotational grazers Ted and his son Brian Alexander swear by their drought plan. The Alexanders are members of the PastureMap community and run a seasonal custom grazing operation.
Ted started working with the NRCS after returning to the family ranch in 1984, he studied his forage protein content and “went nuts” cross-fencing. He decided to write a drought management plan in 1997. In 1998, they got 14 inches of rain — typical rainfall on their ranch is 18 to 22 inches per year. They implemented their drought plan.
The Alexanders started by making improvements to their grazing system. They invested in their pastures, removing non-native cedar trees and sagebrush growth, implementing an every 10-years prescribed burning and planting 120 acres of farm ground to native grasses.
They extended their water and fencing infrastructure, building cross fences to control grazing and create rest periods and more uniform use of their forage. They installed water pipelines, stock tanks and wind pumps to store and supply water for increased stocking rates.
They also focused on enterprise flexibility, custom grazing on a per-head, per-day contract. Their implementation of managed intensive grazing principles allowed them to increase stocking rates more than 100 percent and their gross margin per acre increased more than 150 percent.
Previous Rainfall Dictates Your Stocking Rates
The Alexander’s drought management plan is focused around four key dates noting the end and beginning of their two forage-growing seasons. They manage three grazing cells and their stocking rate depends on the precipitation they have gotten at each of those critical points.
April 1 marks the end of their dormant winter season and the beginning of the growing season for warm-season grasses. If they have had less than 4” of rain during the dormant winter season (November 1 to April 1), they:
- Skip prescribed burns.
- Increase the length of rest periods earlier than usual. If drought indicators continue by June 1, make rest periods as long as possible.
On June 15 they know about half of their forage has been produced and 75 percent of the year’s total rainfall should have occurred.
- If they have only received 80 percent of their expected rainfall by that time, they will decrease their stocking rate by 30 percent by finishing herd C culling.
- If the rainfall received is even less, 60 percent of what they expect, they decrease their stocking rate by 40 to 50 percent by weight, deep culling herd B.
- By July 15, their destocking should be complete. They graze their remaining stock as long as possible to allow the other paddocks to rest for as long as possible.
By August 15 the Alexander’s know that 90 percent of their annual forage has been produced and that warm-season grasses are prepared for next year’s growing season. Rest now will benefit next year’s grass. This is even more critical to help the ranch recover from any economic downfalls caused by the drought and help the grass resiliency if they enter a multi-year drought scenario.
- If the July through August 15 rainfall was less than 70 percent of the average for that period, they end herd C grazing by September 1 with a deep cull.
November 1 is the end of their growing season and the beginning of the winter drought season. Less than 80 percent of the 21” average precipitation by that time indicates the beginning of a drought for the next growing season unless the winter is exceptionally wet.
A Drought Management Plan is also a Fire Management Plan
In the Alexander’s case, their drought management plan was critical for surviving an even more extreme event — a catastrophic fire in 2016 that engulfed their ranch in just two hours. The Alexanders responded by implementing their drought management plan. They treated the after-effects of the fire like a severe drought or an overgrazing event.
They cut back their stock, let the paddocks rest and lightly grazed the next year while the grasses recovered. The benefits were evident over neighboring pastures, which still hadn’t recovered to pre-fire levels years after.
“Recovery is just tied to time and rain. How much time you need is tied to how much rain you receive,” says Brian Alexander.
A Rancher’s Mind-Set for Enduring the Drought
The Alexanders remind ranchers gripped by drought that surviving is about mindset as much as anything. Remember, “the rain will come,” and the drought will not last forever.
By improving your pasture and grazing management practices before the drought and having your grazing plan in place to respond to rainfall indicators of a looming drought, you have all the tools you need in place to respond to drought.
Don’t delay when your rainfall levels start dropping off. Follow the plan consider the drought as “positive energy input into the ranch ecology.” Stay flexible, don’t obsess waiting for rain and, as the Alexanders have found, if you have done everything you can and there is nothing more to do well – “Go on vacation!” You’ve earned it!
Additional Resources for Drought Management and Creating Your Drought Plan
The National Drought Mitigation Center has excellent resources for understanding, anticipating and planning for drought. Their “Drought Risk on the Ranch – A Planning Guide for Great Plains Ranchers” can help you kick off your drought strategy and walk you through your drought management plan step-by-step.
At PastureMap, our forage forecast feature based on NRCS rangeland productivity data can easily be incorporated into a drought management plan. It helps ranchers plan for expected forage, shows how much herds have consumed, and can alert ranchers to potential drought conditions so you can destock when it makes the most difference. PastureMap is easy-to-use cattle record-keeping and grazing-management software.