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Drought It's Time to Make Decisions

Drought: It’s Time to Make Decisions
Now’s the Time to Write a Plan

by Doug Spencer, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Marion, Kansas

Drought is something that a lot of people talk about yet few actually have a written plan on how to adjust management when it shows up on the doorstep. In some locations effects of drought are ringing the doorbell while in others it is kicking in the door. Planning for next year will depend heavily on management decisions made during the current year. The following suggestions can help you develop a contingency plan for 2013. This article focuses on the central and southern Flint Hills of Kansas in an area that has experienced its second year of drought conditions during the growing season.

Looking Back

Precipitation received from March through July 2011 was approximately 50 to 60 percent of average. Desirable forages suffered from lack of regrowth in the late summer. Precipitation from November 2011 to March 2012 was around 150 to 160 percent of average. That winter moisture greatly improved pond water in many locations and improved the available water in the soil profile. The forages emerged early in 2012 and flourished in April and May. Precipitation received from March through July 2012 was only 60 to 70 percent of average and native grasses went into dormancy in some locations. By the end of the growing season, some pastures did green-up after some rains in August, but still did not have good regrowth. When looking at the precipitation that occurred from November 2010 to September 2012, a 15- to 20-inch deficit in precipitation is staring us in the face. Ponds are low, some springs are dry, and in some cases wells dried up. It is dry and only above average moisture over an extended period of time will help improve the moisture in the soil profile.

Condition Of The Forage Resource

It is easy to look at monthly precipitation summaries and realize that the summer of 2012 was extremely dry. In the southern Flint Hills, precipitation during the key moisture months of March through July was only 60 to 70 percent of average. That is a significant reduction in precipitation when the prairie needs it for growth. The tallgrass prairie typically produces 60 to 70 percent of its annual growth from late April through June. Plant communities that had good vigor at the end of 2011 did not suffer as great a reduction in grass growth as those that lacked regrowth at the end of 2011. If your desirable forages are lacking vigor because of heavy grazing pressure (especially for the second year in a row), even above average moisture through the winter of 2012 and spring 0f 2013 will not allow the use of standard stocking rates in 2013.

Dates And Plans

So what are the decisions you have to make and when should those decisions be made? As a manager, you must decide if prescribed burning will be implemented, if a reduction in livestock demand is needed, and if a change in the grazing system is necessary in order to prevent degradation of the range resource. In the tallgrass prairie, the timing of those decision dates at a minimum should be close to October 1, April 1, July 1, and then start over. Often these decision dates are referred to as “trigger” dates. A trigger date is a date set during the calendar year where you analyze your precipitation data, available forage, and livestock demand to determine if a management decision needs to be made. Refer to the chart and narratives below. The reductions assume that you are already consistently using a moderate stocking rate where forage supply is balanced with animal demand.


Decisions This Fall And Winter (October 1)

Based on 2 years of dry summers, consider reducing livestock demand for 2013 by 25 percent for pastures that are low in vigor and 15 percent for pastures where adjustments were made in 2012 and vigor is still good. Desirable plants that were heavily grazed will be slower to green up next spring. Bare ground is likely to be more available for forbs and annual grasses to germinate.

Keep an eye on winter moisture. If it is adequate or even above average, it may cause a significant flush of growth from annual bromes and some of the cool-season perennial grasses. You may want to take advantage of this flush of growth by grazing livestock, but do not allow livestock to begin overgrazing the desirable warm season grasses as they emerge. If you have not already done so, calculate the available forage that is still present on your pastures if any. If pastures are typically grazed in the dormant season, be sure to balance the forage demand of the livestock with the available forage. Your goal should be to leave 1200 to 1500 pounds of grass per acre (4 to 5 inches of leafy material) in the pasture to protect the soil and allow the hydrologic cycle to continue functioning. If this is not already present, realize that your moisture capturing and retaining capacity of your pasture may be affected.

Decisions Next Spring (April 1)

Compare your average moisture received from November 1 through March 31. If precipitation is 100 percent or more of average, no further reductions may be needed. If precipitation is 75 to 100 percent, further reduce livestock demand by 5 percent. If precipitation is 50 to 75 percent, further reduce livestock demand by 10 percent. If precipitation is less than 50 percent further reduce livestock demand by 25 percent. If prescribed burning is planned for a specific conservation objective, be sure the top 12 inches of the soil profile is wet, and the soil surface is damp before burning. A decision to reduce livestock demand and rotationally graze pastures or remove livestock before July 15 will offer desirable forages a chance to recover from the previous year’s abuse. Consider using a full season stocking system in 2013 with options to remove cattle as early as July 1. The full season rate will allow some of the native grasses to “get ahead” of the grazing livestock. If considerable moisture does occur during the early summer of 2013, then it is possible to leave the livestock for their entire season. If drought conditions continue, early removal will allow desirable forages a chance to utilize any moisture that is received in late summer for survival or improvement in vigor.

Decisions Next Summer (July 1)

July 1 is 60 days into the typical grazing season when a May 1 turnout date is used. Forage production of the prairie is around 60 to 70 percent complete while the 6-month grazing season is only 30 to 35 percent complete. A decision at this point in the growing season can make a significant impact on the amount of standing forage found in the pasture at the end of the growing season. When using precipitation values, remember to look back at each rain event and make sure that the rainfall was effective. If a rain occurred that mostly ran off the pasture, do not include all that as “available” on your moisture calendar.

Look at the total rainfall received from March 1 through the end of June compared to average. If precipitation is 100 percent or more of average, no further reductions may be needed. If precipitation is less than 75 percent, further reduce livestock demand by 10 percent. If precipitation received during March through the end of June is less than 50 percent of average, complete destocking of the pastures should be done by July 15.

In a May 1 to October 31 grazing season, removing the livestock on September 30, instead of October 31, reduces the demand on the forage by 15 to 20 percent. Removing livestock at the end of August in a typical 6-month grazing season can reduce overall stocking rate by 30 to 35 percent.

What if It Rains After July 1

It would be fantastic if precipitation spiked in July and August this year. If a decision was made to lower livestock demand and precipitation increased, it is not a bad thing. With two years of heavy use and poor growing conditions, the desirable forages need all the rest and growth they can get to replace roots and build reserves for the next season. If the precipitation pattern changes and “extra” forage remains at the end of the season, there are great opportunities to dormant-season graze this surplus or use it for fuel load to improve effectiveness of prescribed burning over the entire pasture. Making the decision to destock a pasture early or reduce the initial stocking rate does not worry a rancher as much as staring at an overgrazed pasture where no decisions were made.

Plan for The Following Year

You are back to October 1 and need to evaluate the choices that worked and those that did not. Tweak the contingency plan if needed while the decisions are fresh on your mind.

Write It Down

It is much better to prepare for a drought and not have the opportunity to implement the contingency plan than to have a drought and not have a contingency plan. Writing these decisions down while it is raining might seem odd, but it allows you time to think about how you can market livestock or the availability of alternative forages. Trying to make these decisions while the grass withers under your feet will be much more stressful. Those decisions are made with emotion rather than facts and could have severe long-term impacts due to short-sighted reactions.

For More Information

Your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office can provide assistance with grazing management that includes contingency planning. If you would like assistance with your grazing management, please contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center (USDA) (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.