Manage your pastures and fields better in drought |

Manage your pastures and fields better in drought

Amanda Radke
for Tri-State Livestock News

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 20 percent of South Dakota is in exceptional drought (D4); 47 percent is in extreme drought (D3); 17 percent is in severe drought (D2); and 14 percent is in moderate drought (D1).

As an unusually cold, windy and open winter continues to dry out the state, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in South Dakota is offering recommendations for producers to conserve moisture and protect natural resources.

“Conservation helps us become drought resistant,” said Jeff Zimprich, NRCS state conservationist, based in Huron, SD.

One resource available for producers is, which has a drought tool to asses the current status for a specific location.

“The tool is able to extrapolate the drought situation out for the future,” explained Shane Deranleau, rangeland management specialist in Mitchell, SD. “The current drought has our grasslands at 71 percent of peak production; we have lost 29 percent of production. The tools shows the percent over average precipitation to recover from this drought. So, Rapid City would require 131.5 percent to recover; Pierre would need 136 percent to recover; and Brookings would need 127 percent more all in April, May and June to be considered out of the drought.”

“Yet, even with average rainfall, we will be at only 75 percent of peak production,” added Stan Boltz, state rangeland management specialist.

Despite these dismal numbers, it doesn’t pay to dwell on the bad news of the drought; instead, it’s time to focus and execute a drought management plan.

“There are years above and below normal for precipitation, we can’t control that; we can only prepare,” said Lyle Perman, a rancher from Walworth County, SD. “Don’t waste time deciding what to do. As producers, we need to have a plan already in place.”

Perman has been using a drought planning strategy and formula since 1976.

“It may take a few years to restock after a drought; we need to allow the rangeland to recover slowly to get up to peak production,” Perman added.

Boltz stressed the importance of reducing impact on grasses by, “reducing herd size, early wean calves, consolidate herds, introduce creep feed, utilize alternative forages and crop residues and early pregnancy-check and cull open and late cows. Stressing and over-utilizing the grass you have can impact the grass for two or three years down the road.”

In addition to improving rangelands, there are strategies to better manage croplands, as well. There are many considerations to keep in mind to get the most out of fields.

“Right now there is no sub-surface moisture,” said Jason Miller, conservation agronomist in Pierre, SD. “Statewide, we have 3 inches to 1 foot of top soil moisture; this leaves the door open for wind erosion. The best way to manage the soil is to no-till in the crop and leave stubble to prevent erosion, maximize productivity and maintain organic matter.”

One producer who exemplifies excellent cropland stewardship is Louis Bainbridge from Ethan, SD.

“Mother Nature is in charge, and we need to figure out how to work with her, not against her,” Bainbridge said.

Last year, nearly 40 percent of his corn was cut for silage because there was basically no yield. Bainbridge left strips of corn to prevent soil erosion. This year, he will cut back on plant populations to reduce the water requirements on the field.

Zimprich hopes producers – both farmers and ranchers – utilize NRCS to help manage their resources during this on-going drought. NRCS conservation specialists in Pierre and regional offices are available to offer advice, share ideas, help develop a plan tailored to each individual operation and help to lessen the impacts of the drought this year and in the future.