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Drought Planning for Rangeland

Drought Planning for Rangeland

by David J. Kraft, State Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Emporia, Kansas

“Extreme or Exceptional Drought” are words many of us are all too familiar with this year in Kansas. Unfortunately, many predictions do not reveal much change in the immediate future. With that said, how do your pastures or grazing lands look going into the dormant season? What are your expectations for those same plant communities next spring? Is it too early to plan for drought next year or for years to come? Tough questions often lead to tough answers or decisions. However, a little pre-planning can make some of those decisions or choices easier to make when or if the drought continues.

Drought is generally defined as a prolonged period of time during which precipitation is less than 75 percent of average for a given year, or poor distribution of precipitation in a single year, or less than average precipitation in successive years. This certainly defines a majority of land in the southern half of the state this year. It is also a more common occurrence as we go from the east to the west in the state. While drought is more common and maybe even more planned for in the west, it is still common for the ranching community to fail to plan for or be pro-active in management responses to the onset of drought conditions.

Reality would indicate that rangeland vegetation in Kansas in any given year is either in the recovery phase, under the direct influence of drought, or approaching the next moisture deficient period of time. Through time, and especially in the past 100 years of domestic grazing in the Great Plains, dramatic shifts in species composition (types of native plants which exist in rangeland) have been documented, especially during and following the major drought of the 1930s. In fact, the only climatic difference this year offers from the past is that we have only experienced a short period of moisture deficit to this point.

Before we discuss what actions are on the table for rangeland managers to choose from and address drought conditions, let’s look at what the impacts and outcomes are of drought.

Drought Impacts

One finding documented by the Nebraska Cooperative Extension in their document EC 91-123, is that the combination of drought and heavy grazing can cause severe reductions in forage production and plant vigor. When this happens we also see changes in species composition causing the surface or plant cover to also change. In fact, drought conditions can be worsened by poor grazing management during a defined drought. This also causes any moisture which does fall during the drought to be less effective. When grazing results in plant community changes and decreased plant vigor, less moisture actually enters the soil to become useful to the plant. Getting more effective precipitation into the soil is a result of more healthy root systems which become more extensive, providing more surface openings for water movement into the soil profile. No one wishes to make any drought more impactful from a negative point of view, but this commonly happens when managers fail to take steps to benefit the plant community. In those moments or instances, when tough decisions become tougher, most producers think of the livestock first and the grazing resource second. Recovery time is increased in rangeland where range condition or vigor (health of the plant community) is lower going into drought conditions or not properly managed within a drought.

What can we do now that we are in a drought?

Take a close look at current stocking rates. With a 50 percent decrease in rainfall or precipitation, stocking rates may need to be reduced by 40 percent. At a 30 percent reduction in rainfall, stocking rates may need to be reduced by 20 percent. However, one must ask first, am I currently stocking my grazing lands at a rate which provides long term sustainability. If I am currently over using the forage being produced annually, my reductions could even require deeper cuts or extended periods of rest from grazing.

Early weaning

Another option that is available to cow/calf producers is early weaning of calves. Take into consideration that cattle will typically average the consumption of 3 percent of their body weight each day. If you have 500-pound calves still grazing alongside their mothers, you can quickly reduce the pressure on the grazing resource by approximately a third by weaning the calves. Many cow/calf producers are becoming more interested in moving their calving season later into the spring months, helping cut expenses by not having to feed a cow as much hay through the high-demand last trimester leading up to birthing the calf and then after the calf is born. Simply not having to put up as much hay not only cuts expenses, it also may provide for more acres to spread out the grazing pressure from year to year. In addition to this, producers may also choose to limit the exposure time to hay for cattle they are feeding. The cost and resource savings within this practice is based upon the amount of waste being generated by cows loafing around the hay supply and consuming more forage than needed.

Improvement of rangeland condition and vigor should be practiced or targeted in years not identified as drought years, leading to quicker recovery of plant communities coming out of drought periods. This can be accomplished by implementing a drought plan.

Drought Plan

A drought plan should minimize financial hardships and hasten vegetation recovery after drought. It should also identify actions to be taken at the first sign of drought as well as with continued indications of moisture and forage shortages. Any stocking rate adjustments should be specific in terms of how many and how long!

These actions should be based upon seasonal check points and indicators. Some of these include or involve monthly monitoring to compare forage supplies to the resource potential, moisture to begin the season, quickness of green-up of desirable species, and any carryover or accumulated forage.

Trigger points or evaluation times will vary depending upon where you reside in the state from east to west. In the eastern part of the state, drought recovery or at least exiting from the effects of a drought are more likely to happen but still require producers to evaluate their resources in the early spring. In the central part of the state, this evaluation should occur and will depend upon moisture availability and accumulation of moisture during the period of the previous September-through-November time frame. In the western third of the state this is advanced to the two previous years. Remember, when you are in a severe drought or moisture deficit, only above average moisture will speedily change that designation. Normal or below-normal moisture will not allow for a departure from most drought impacts.

These dates or evaluation periods are only the beginning. Dates within the current growing season are also pivotal points by which producers can have decisions already made so they can step into action and implement their strategy. Typically, producers should have a set list of possible actions based upon their findings from April 1 and every 45 days thereafter. Deciding on these actions ahead of time will better prepare you when and if the time requires you to act. The idea here is to be a manager of action not reaction.

Individuals who have actively deployed drought plans in the past would tell you that they were able to improve their rangeland during a drought and immediately coming out of a drought, not merely allowing it to survive, but to thrive.