To date the winter of 2011-2012 has been mild and open. Winter grazing has been very accessible and even surface water has been ice free and available in many pastures.
Since September the Drought Monitor has rated increasing portions of the Dakotas as "Abnormally Dry." Limited or no snow cover combined with mild temperatures has raised the awareness of many livestock producers to low precipitation conditions.
While it is always prudent to be alert to moisture conditions, a review of recent weather history might be in order. I've referred to records from the Rapid City (SD) Regional Airport where average annual precipitation is 16.6 inches. Other locations may vary, but long term trends are representative for the region. The most recent calendar year with below normal precipitation was 2007. The annual deficit was just over 4 inches. Recent annual surpluses have ranged from 2 inches in 2009 to almost 4 inches in 2008. The last six months of 2011 were and 1.5 inches below normal, due in large part to the deficit accumulated in July.
The critical rainfall period for Northern Plains grasslands is April through June. On average, nearly half of the annual rainfall comes during these three months. It's also the period when temperatures are most favorable for rapid growth of cool-season grasses.
Current predictions from the National Weather Service for April through June precipitation suggest that most of South Dakota and adjoining portions of Nebraska and Wyoming have an "equal chance" of above or below normal rainfall for that period. Most of North Dakota and eastern Montana is projected to have a higher probability of having above normal precipitation. Below normal rainfall is anticipated for all of Texas and adjacent portions of the south-central U.S. Those projections are based, at least in part, on the current La Nina conditions in the tropical Pacific. La Nina has been associated with the extreme and persistent drought in Texas.
If there's ever a slow time on a ranch, it might be during an open winter when the feeding chores are limited. It provides a great opportunity to do some planning - looking forward particularly to upcoming certainties: calving, grazing, breeding and weaning. Anticipating possible uncertainties may be even more important.
The next drought is certain, but we are poor at anticipating when it will begin. If antennae are elevated by current dryness, investing in preparation may be the best remedy for anxiety.
Allow me to recommend a solid reference tool to guide you through development of a contingency plan for drought. Folks at the National Drought Mitigation Center have collected a number of resources appropriate for ranch planning. They are especially appropriate to the Northern Plains because that is where many of the materials were developed. In addition to technical and scientific information, there are some very practical examples that come from working ranches. Because the tri-state region is not currently suffering from drought, it's appropriate to begin the planning process with the "Before Drought" sequence. Here's a link for that entry point: http://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan/BeforeDrought/StartHereBeforeDrought.aspx .
An outline for the process includes some background information labeled "Understand Drought" and continues with six steps to complete a comprehensive plan:
1. Form a planning team.
2. Clarify your goals and objectives.
3. Take inventory - what do you have to work with?
4. Identify critical dates and targets.
5. Learn to monitor drought, forage resources, livestock health and finances.
6. Plan strategies to get forage resources, livestock and finances ready for drought.
Many folks will have given considerable thought to a number of these steps, some may even be complete. Developing the plan while the "pressure is off," will allow you to be thoughtful and deliberate, even creative, in developing strategies to deal with the below average rainfall and consequent feed reductions.
Remember also that drought is not the only reason for pasture shortages. Late freezes, hail, grasshoppers, even floods can reduce access to grazing. Having a contingency plan in place can provide for a timely and predictable response, which is potentially much less damaging than a reactionary response that comes too late to avoid damage to both resource and operation finances.
Take the time to consult this useful resource that contains a great deal of additional supplemental information. Consider your options. The best outcome would be to find yourself in January 2013 with a drought plan you never had to use. The worst outcome might be to have endured a severe drought without any plan to guide your decisions.