Drought-proof your ranch: Part 6: Drought Plans Ease Decisions, Reduce Stress
“The more rest you give a plant, the more root system it develops, and the greater resilience it has when grazed or when drought occurs,” says Meadow, SD rancher Dan Anderson. “It’ll snap back quicker and grow more plant on top of the ground because you have managed for a deep root system.”
About 20 years into his experience as the second-generation rancher on the Darling Creek Ranch, the Anderson family attended the Ranching For Profit school. Then they built their first drought plan, expanded paddock numbers and water with the Great Plains and EQIP programs and haven’t looked back. “We noticed quite a change in the amount of grass we produced just by giving paddocks 12 to 14 months rest by focusing on the soil,” he says.
Anderson is now 30 years into intensive rotational grazing, with the third generation now stepping in. He has reached goals never thought possible considering his early days of season-long grazing and feeding hay from Thanksgiving until May. “By leaving each paddock with adequate standing forage (1,200-1,500 lbs./acre), we’re armoring and feeding the soil to improve organic matter and water infiltration. Over time, we’ve doubled livestock numbers on the same ground, plus we graze year-round,” he adds.
Plan for drought
A drought plan is an essential piece of the Anderson’s grazing management plan. Their goal is to protect the land resources (soil and grass) and keep the core cow herd intact. They have implemented the drought plan three times (2004, 2012 and 2021), and their post-drought recovery becomes quicker with each subsequent drought, thanks to rangeland health.
Anderson will implement trigger dates as needed, according to the NRCS drought tool, especially if a drought lingers into a second season. “We implement our plan trigger dates to sell livestock in the winter; flex herd of grass yearlings go first, then we’ll move other livestock [sheep or cattle] in April. The plan helps avoid being backed into a corner on decisions, greatly reducing stress leading to better decisions,” he says.
Judge Jessop, South Dakota Grasslands Coalition (SDGC) Executive Director and rancher near Presho, has watched and learned from countless ranchers during Grazing Schools, on videos, from SDGC board members and from attending other events. “The big thing with the Coalition is we encourage taking a holistic approach—from resource management to financials to the family social aspects,” he says.
Planning to reduce drought
Longtime NRCS range conservationist Mitch Faulkner from Belle Fourche has dealt with droughts across ranches in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. “Drought is always a crisis, so the more long-range strategic planning that happens, the better ranchers can almost drought-proof themselves,” he says.
Faulkner, who has helped many ranchers improve and upgrade their rangeland and grazing strategies through NRCS, firmly believes implementing the 3 R’s philosophy (Rest, Rotate, Recover) builds a healthy, resilient and profitable ranch. “Ranchers who have reliable water sources and multi-pasture grazing rotation with proper stocking rates and recovery periods can maintain a grazing plan even in a drought,” he says.
Part of that drought planning beyond trigger dates includes access to additional forage or cropland grazing and strategic herd reduction or less custom feeding as needed. “A drought plan is an exit plan because you’re removing the decision emotion,” Jessop says. “Today, we have adequate moisture, but the forecast doesn’t look good, which will impact grass growth next year. It’s not a crystal ball, but a plan and plans can change.”
Overgrazing penalizes the future
Faulkner helps ranchers use the NRCS drought tool to calculate current and potential grass inventory early in the growing season to determine if part of a flex herd needs to stay or go. “In some cases, ranchers can worsen their drought conditions by overgrazing. Then they will pay the penalty for years because the grassland becomes less resilient and the plant vigor recovers slowly.”
Droughts are a part of the natural cycle in South Dakota. So some ranchers build in a naturally conservative stocking rate. “When we ask them why they tell us that these rates help pastures withstand a dry year better. They don’t have to worry about drought management as much,” Faulkner says. “That strategy is beneficial because a quicker and stronger post-drought recovery can mean more income by adding yearlings or custom grazing during the good times.”
Water infrastructure is critical
As Faulkner works with ranchers to create grazing and drought plans, he finds that having reliable and well-distributed water helps producers the most. “It’s the management that facilitates a ranch becoming more drought-proof, but the locations and reliability of livestock water drive a successful plan. And it’s very satisfying when ranchers tell me that these efforts are reducing drought severity,” he adds.
For example, even in a smaller four or five pasture rotation, Faulkner helps ranchers figure out plans to accomplish minimized grazing periods per pasture and, to the extent possible, maximize pasture recovery periods. “By placing reliable water on the landscape where it can accommodate a good grazing rotation, then you can put grazing management into place that will benefit the grass resource,” he says.
Jessop encourages all ranchers interested in developing a more drought-proof ranch to reach out. South Dakota is fortunate to have many groups and the Grasslands Coalition working together to help ranchers improve grasslands. “Twenty years ago, when we started our grazing school, we talked about helping ranchers institute a four-pasture system,” he says. “Now we have ranchers strategically improving soil health and resting grass paddocks for 12 months while reducing drought severity. And we have more pasture walks, events and videos that showcase how ranchers accomplish their improvements.”
For further inspiration to drought-proof your ranch, check out “Growing Resilience Through Our Soils” (www.growingresiliencesd.com) and “Pray for Rain, Plan for Drought” (https://sddroughtplan.org). South Dakota offers an innovative look at ranchers across the state who describe their improvement journeys in the NRCS-South Dakota video series ‘Our Amazing Grasslands.’ In addition, the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition has compiled a list of rancher mentors by topic. And the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition has a list of farmer and rancher mentors.
This feature is the final installment of a six-part series of articles showcasing how more ranchers have moved away from season-long grazing in a few pastures to a more adaptive and productive grazing system. Understanding the steps in their journey–– along with grassland specialists’ recommendations––can put you on the path to a less stressful, more profitable operation.
Previous stories can be found here:
Part 1: Find Your Soil Health Mindset to Diminish Drought
Part 2: Build pasture health by mastering rest and recovery
Part 3: Manage for Plant, Animal and Ranch Diversity
Part 4: Explore the Benefits of Year-Round Grazing
Part 5: Mentor Ranchers and Rangeland Events Improve Adaptive Grazing