NRCS, South Dakota Grasslands Coalition install new weather collection stations | TSLN.com

NRCS, South Dakota Grasslands Coalition install new weather collection stations

Every month, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) South Dakota releases the current status of the state's grassland drought conditions. The Dec. 1, 2016 release showed much of the state in the "green" indicating normal conditions, with only some moderate drought risk shown on the far western side of the state.

The graph left many ranchers scratching their heads, particularly those who are weathering through extreme drought conditions.

"We're really dry near Highmore, S.D. — much drier than what the NRCS data is showing," said Jim Faulstich, a cattle rancher who also serves on the South Dakota Grassland Coalition (SDGC) board of directors. "Monitoring moisture is huge, especially from a drought management standpoint. Frankly, I'm 10 miles away from an official weather station, and we're always drier for the year than what the official station reports."

The NRCS data interpretation doesn't reveal any information about forage quality, which can make the reports appear inaccurate.

In an effort to release more accurate predictions for drought, and as a result, assist ranchers in formulating a drought management plan, NRCS South Dakota has teamed up with SDGC to install 10 demo weather stations around the state.

"I'm very hopeful about what this partnership with SDGC," said Boltz. "The weather stations will monitor temperature and take soil moisture measurements. The data collected will help calibrate our drought tools, and I plan to take clippings from the station sites to improve accuracy of the data released."

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Faulstich has access to one of the weather stations, which is located three miles from his ranch.

"The censors measure the high and low temperatures, moisture for the year, soil moisture, humidity, wind and even an estimated forecast for the day; they are a complete weather station," said Faulstich. "They can even tell if a front is moving in and the barometer drops to predict if moisture is coming in. The SDGC sees a tremendous value to these stations. It records data every 15 minutes that can be tracked from your computer or smartphone. It documents weather conditions and offers a complete history of the ranch for a given year. This information could help ranchers make decisions based on accurate data collected on site verses an official weather station that could be 20-50 miles or more away from you."

SDGC and NRCS South Dakota shared costs for these weather stations, and the project is just in the beginning stages of implementation.

"Knowing what the traditional moisture is on your ranch is more critical than anything when making management decisions, particularly when calculating stocking numbers," said Faulstich. "We rely on our own data collected, as well as NRCS drought tools to help us plan. Ultimately, we know we're going to be dry every year; it's just a matter of how dry and for how long. Drought management is just a part of our total management scheme. It seems like folks wait too long to react to drought, and that's when they get into trouble."

Faulstich looks at two critical dates each year to plan and prepare for drought — October 1 and April 1. These dates, he said, determine and predict the available grass for the upcoming grazing season.

"SDSU has done research on our ranch that showed the total pounds of beef and pounds of forage for the year are basically established in April," he said. "If we don't get much in April, we know the ranch will be impacted for the rest of the year."

Stan Boltz, NRCS South Dakota rangeland management specialist, explained the discrepancies between what the drought condition chart shows and what ranchers are actually experiencing.

"There are 1-4 stations in each county across the state that look at the percent of precipitation compared to the historic average precipitation," said Boltz. "Also calculated into the report is the National Resource inventory data clippings that we've collected over the years. We basically go back and look at the data clippings to calibrate the tools, and the report is based on past clippings and the current rain fall."

What the chart doesn't recognize, however, is forage quality, he said.

"One of the issues that we've had this year, especially when looking at west river reports, is the drought impacted forage quality even more than forage quantity," said Boltz. "The report measures the current and potential production of a location, but it doesn't factor in the quality of the forage. The reason why the drought wasn't reflected in the charts is because some areas started to get some great spring growth early on, but a late frost sent some of those grasses into dormancy. Then it got dry, and production of those grasslands never really bounced back. As a result, we were seeing a double whammy on the lack of rain and the lack of forage quality, and the drought tool isn't as good at showing those other factors."

Boltz recommended that producers not only reference the NRCS data, but also compare the information to the U.S. Drought Monitor reports.

"The NRCS drought data is very specific to production, while the U.S. Drought Monitor uses several different measures of drought in a broader spectrum," he explained. "Harding and Butte Counties have been hit hard with drought this year. Unfortunately, when local counties tried to talk with the FSA and total the losses ranchers experienced due to the drought, the data showed the grass was there, but it didn't capture the forage quality issue producers were facing."

Boltz said when traveling the state cutting clippings, it was clear that western Meade County was experiencing drought-like conditions. NRCS South Dakota recently released its July 1, 2017 predictions for grassland drought conditions based on average precipitation for the area.

"If your county is in yellow with anticipated average precipitation, you should be very concerned about drought, particularly if moisture ends up being below the average," he said. "However, there are ways to drought-proof your ranch through planning in advance of dry conditions, but it requires some data and knowing the history of your own operation."

"Knowing what the traditional moisture is on your ranch is more critical than anything when making management decisions, particularly when calculating stocking numbers," said Faulstich. "We rely on our own data collected, as well as NRCS drought tools to help us plan. Ultimately, we know we're going to be dry every year; it's just a matter of how dry and for how long. Drought management is just a part of our total management scheme. It seems like folks wait too long to react to drought, and that's when they get into trouble."

Faulstich recommends keeping a list of cull cows that can be sold early before grass runs short. He also supports biodiversity in crops, as well as managing grasses to support warm season grasses as well as to maintain and slow down the spread of cool season grasses like brome, crested wheat grass and blue grass.

"We've learned the importance of having a diversity of enterprises," he said. "We run custom grazed yearlings in addition to our cow-calf operation, and we've added a hunting enterprise to the mix. This has increased our diversity and offered an economic stabilizer while also taking care of the grass and wildlife."