The development of a sound drought management plan can make the difference between being a winner or a loser once the drought is over. Tonya Haigh, researcher with the National Drought Mitigation Center housed at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, recently shared some strategies used by other ranchers to survive the drought.
“The goal of the Drought Mitigation Center is to lessen the vulnerability of drought by promoting planning, and the adoption of the appropriate risk management techniques,” Haigh said. “We are heavily involved in drought monitoring.”
The center has documented that during the last 100 years, ranchers seem to experience drought about every decade. “It is one of the biggest threats to ranch income,” Haigh said. “Through our research, and the interviews we’ve conducted, there are winners, losers, and folks who came through the last drought in pretty good shape,” she explained. “In fact, up to a quarter of the ranchers we interviewed said the last drought didn’t have a negative impact on their ranches because they had plenty of water and ample feed supplies. They may have even profited by being able to sell hay to producers in other areas,” she said.
To help other ranchers plan for drought so they can control their losses, Haigh said the Drought Mitigation Center teamed up with the Risk Management Agency, several universities, and ranchers to create a website to help stockmen develop a drought management plan.
As part of the research, Haigh said several ranchers in the Great Plains from North Dakota to Texas were interviewed about how they planned for drought. The responses were diverse, Haigh said. “Some ranchers said they didn’t believe drought planning was a sure thing, and one rancher even told us that it was the least precise and most troublesome part of overall ranch management,” she said. Each drought is unique because they vary in severity, how they impact resources, and how they affect markets. “There is one thing most ranchers agreed on though – when no rain falls, no ranch can be considered drought-proof,” she stated.
“Despite the difficulties, the ranches all used drought preparedness strategies, and they saw the strategies pay off during the drought through the health of their grass, and the quality of their rangeland,” she said. “Many of these ranchers said because of their efforts and planning, they didn’t have to destock to the point they probably would have, or as much as their neighbors did.”
Although the ranchers had different strategies to deal with drought, Haigh noticed three management strategies that most of them shared:
1. Maximizing the health of their operation before drought
2. Monitoring the health of their resources
3. Implementing decision-making rules on critical dates after they begin to see drought conditions appear.
“All the ranchers said the most important thing they did to manage for drought was to focus on the health of their overall ranching operation,” Haigh said. “They used grazing systems management to increase their pasture health, and other pasture improvement practices and water improvements that benefitted the root systems of the plants, and helped the plants better maintain themselves during the drought,” she explained.
The producers also built flexibility into their operations. Some diversified into other livestock or added hunting enterprises to their operations. Others added custom grazing so they could better control how long livestock grazed what grass was available. Haigh said some producers also planned hay and forage reserves into their operation so they would have more options during a drought. “One rancher said he had built enough forage reserves into his operation that he could withstand a two-year drought,” she said. Another rancher said he manages drought by minimizing the amount of debt he takes on during drought.
Haigh noted every operation was really involved in ongoing monitoring for conservation of their resources. “One rancher paid so much attention to his forages in both quality and quantity, that when the forage started a steady decline, he could see it right away,” she said. “He said he felt more ready to react because he had the records to fall back on. Many of these ranchers also pay attention to measuring precipitation on their ranches,” she added.
These ranchers also made rules and set dates to make key decisions when they faced a drought year. “They had written the critical days into a blueprint of what would be done,” she explained. “This blueprint contained a list of what decisions to make including management alternatives and rules they had thought out ahead of time.”
On-line drought planning
To help producers combat the affects of drought, the Drought Mitigation Center has developed an on-line drought planning resource for ranchers. “We designed this site with the hope that it will be a helpful resource for ranchers or range resource planners to write a drought plan for a ranch,” Haigh said.
Through the website, which is drought.unl.edu/ranchplan, producers can find answers about how the drought affects forage regrowth and recovery, and the difference between short and long term forecasts. They can also locate information from different resources about monitoring precipitation for forage and range, livestock production, and ranch finances.
Ranchers can learn how to establish target dates, and set timelines for decision-making. They can also learn how to set ranch and strategic goals, and gain information about grazing planning.
Also important, Haigh said is developing a plan for coming out of drought. “The rangelands won’t be back to normal next year, even if the drought subsides, so they need to develop a plan for that,” she said.
Through the website, ranchers can find some sample plans to work from, Haigh continued. “Some ranches we work with have shared their actual drought plans through this website. There is everything from information about their ranches, to maps that put everything in context. We hope to see ranchers learn from one another by utilizing this information,” she explained.