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Failing to plan for drought is planning to fail

NDSU Extension specialists offer livestock producers suggestions for dealing with drought.

Cattle producers should be prepared to deal with drought this year, North Dakota State University range and livestock experts warn.

Despite heavy snowfall in many areas of North Dakota during the winter, the current U.S. Drought Monitor shows approximately 75 percent of the state is classified as abnormally dry. The remaining 25 percent has moderate drought.

"With the majority (80 percent) of perennial grass growth in our area dictated by rainfall received prior to July 1, current conditions are a concern for producers," says Janna Kincheloe, the NDSU Extension Service's area livestock systems specialist at the Hettinger Research Extension Center.

Statewide precipitation to this point is 50 to 80 percent of normal, and dry conditions are expected to persist throughout the summer.

"Due to these dry conditions in May, producers should expect a 10 percent or greater reduction in forage," cautions Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Extension rangeland management specialist. "If June remains dry, expect a minimum 30 percent reduction in grazeable forage. Livestock producers should have a drought management plan in place in case drought continues into the growing season."

Some common strategies to prepare for and deal with drought include:

Increase the use of purchased feed

Lease additional pasture

Place livestock in a drylot temporarily

Wean early

Destock

One of the first steps in preparing a drought management plan is to identify "triggers," or thresholds, associated with water and vegetation that indicate the need for action.

If water quality is questionable, producers should collect samples and send them to a laboratory for analysis. Water testing kits are available through the county offices of the NDSU Extension Service.

"Producers need to ensure they have enough good-quality water to meet livestock needs based on the type of animal and physiological status," says Karl Hoppe, NDSU Extension area livestock systems specialist at the Carrington Research Extension Center. "If this is an issue, alternatives such as installing pipelines, accessing other sources such as rural water, or hauling water should be explored."

In addition, producers must ensure appropriate pasture utilization levels to maintain plant health.

"Overgrazing affects the entire rangeland plant community and can reduce species diversity and biomass, increase soil erosion and weed growth, and reduce soil water-holding capacity," explains Miranda Meehan, NDSU Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. "Drought conditions also can lead to increased risk of toxicity from selenium and nitrates in plants."

Identifying contingency feed sources and strategies to maintain cattle health and productivity is important.

"Current markets for grain may provide a favorable alternative feed for cattle if dry conditions persist," says Carl Dahlen, NDSU Extension beef cattle specialist. "Identifying a trigger date and having a destocking strategy are also important components of a drought management plan.

"Destocking may seem drastic, but in some cases, it is the only realistic solution," he adds. "Producers should determine now which animals they want to keep and which should be sold based on age, productivity, health, disposition and genetic background."

Sedivec suggests that planting an annual forage for pasture or hay could be an option if moisture does return during the summer (mid-June to mid-July). Foxtail millet, sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids and pearl millet are good warm-season grass options that provide high-production forages for late summer and fall use. Planting a cover mixture also will provide grazing forage for emergency pasture at that time.

Goals for the ranch, short- and long-term needs of the ranch family and the ranching operation's current financial position are important considerations for developing a drought strategy as well.

"It is important to have a thorough understanding of ranch resources in order to balance rangeland health with livestock production," Kincheloe says. "There is no 'one size fits all' plan for drought management. The most important part of any drought management plan is simply to have a plan in place."

She recommends producers use the Drought Calculator, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-developed tool that uses local precipitation data to estimate the impact of below-normal precipitation on forage production. It is available at http://nrrc.ars.usda.gov/DCND/.

For date-specific information about monitoring and evaluating grassland resources, refer to the NDSU Extension publication "Strategies for Managing Drought in the Northern Plains," available at http://tinyurl.com/DroughtManagementStrategies.

Visit NDSU's drought website at https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/drought or contact your county office of the NDSU Extension Service for more information or resources.

–NDSU Extension