Greg Lardy: Drought Management Principles Haven’t Changed
Heading into the first week of June, it appears many parts of the Dakotas, northeastern Wyoming, and the very easternmost counties in Montana are abnormally dry. While there is still ample time for rainfall in June while our forages are actively growing, it is troubling to see these dry conditions. Given the situation, it is important to keep in mind good drought management principles as you consider how to address and deal with the lack of moisture.
In order to most effectively deal with drought, ranch managers in this region must be proactive. Waiting to see what may happen without taking steps to prepare will severely limit the options you have available as drought conditions progress and dry conditions worsen.
Northern Plains Forages. The native forage species in this region of the Northern Great Plains includes many important cool season forages. These forages rely on stored soil moisture and ample spring rains to achieve their maximum productivity. It also means that the way we manage these forages in the previous growing season will have an impact on how these forages respond to drought in any given year as well.
The recommendation of ‘take half, leave half’ with respect to forage management in any given year is a very helpful management strategy when dealing with dry conditions as well. By not being too aggressive with the amount of forage we take in a grazing system, we leave plants with the proper vigor and ability to deal with short term moisture deficits that are common in this region.
Data from the USDA-ARS Fort Keogh Station in Miles City, Montana also indicates that precipitation in April and May is the primary factor affecting forage production in any given year. Data collected at that station also indicates that in 19 of 20 years, grass production is 65 percent completed by July 1.
Drought Management Strategies
Dealing with drought conditions is never a pleasant task. The two main strategies typically employed include either 1) reducing stocking rate, or 2) providing supplemental feed (or some combination of these two strategies).
Observing seasonal patterns of precipitation and comparing the current year to long-term averages will give a manager insight into the potential severity of the drought conditions, and the level of intervention that may be required as one progresses through the growing season.
Reducing Stocking Rate. Efforts to reduce stocking rate should be viewed from both a short and long-term perspective. Obviously, as drought conditions prolong and worsen, the need to take action by reducing stocking rate is heightened. Over the long term, it is important to approach drought management by stocking the ranch conservatively, and utilizing systems which provide the flexibility to adjust stocking rate as needed. This could include the use of yearling grass cattle, replacement heifers, or other livestock that are potentially marketable should moisture conditions necessitate a reduction in stocking rate.
Keep a list of pairs that are potentially available for culling. How deep you have to go into the list will be dictated by the severity of the drought. Also, have a plan for early weaning. This means being able to readily identify groups of cattle that can be weaned early as part of the solution. Logical classes of animals that should be on the list include replacement heifers, two-year-old cows, and older cows that could readily be culled as part of the early weaning plan.
Provide Supplemental Feed. Providing supplemental feed can take on many different forms, including providing protein or energy supplements, utilizing byproducts, or providing additional roughage. Each has advantages and disadvantages. It is important to consider which nutrients are deficient and to account for transportation and delivery costs when evaluating these options.
As you might expect, nutrient deficiencies can and do occur during a drought. When forage production is below normal, animals may lack energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals, depending on the severity of the drought and how drastically forage production has been impacted.
Plants impacted by drought typically go dormant early, so protein and energy content are negatively impacted. Lack of forage is a common occurrence, but it is very difficult to provide sufficient supplementation to make up for the lack of forage availability. It is almost always better to evaluate your culling strategies if you are faced with substantial reductions in forage production.
Economic Considerations. It is important to keep in mind the short and long-term economic impacts of drought management decisions. Transportation costs for feed, cattle, and potentially water can add up in a hurry. In addition, as you evaluate your options, you should take into account the stage of the cattle cycle, the availability of pasture and buyer interest in other regions, as well as current prices and projections for prices in the future. What may have made sense in previous years may not be the best economic alternative this year. For example, some short-term management solutions (e.g. supplemental feeding, renting pasture in other parts of the country, drylotting cows, early weaning, creep feeding) may be viable in some years, but not others. Since each ranch and market situation is different, a careful analysis of your individual options from a cost and revenue standpoint is important.
The best recommendation I can give is to develop a process of active planning related to drought management. It is easy to see options disappear and lose viability because one waited too long to begin the planning process. As drought conditions worsen, fewer options are available. Do not let drought dictate how you respond. Be as proactive as possible. It will pay dividends in the end.