Don’t let drought cripple your game plan

By Hugh Aljoe
The best defense against drought is long-term pasture stewardship before dry conditions persist.

The author is the director of producer relations for the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Okla.

The best defense against drought is long-term pasture stewardship before dry conditions persist.

Periods of favorable rainfall make every livestock producer look smarter. Periods of drought sort out the smartest among us.

Many philosophical statements come to mind when considering pasture management during drought. One of my favorites of all time came from Wayne Hamilton, one of my range science professors at Texas A&M during my college years: “The time to start planning for a drought is when it is raining.” He followed that statement up immediately with: “And the time to start planning for a rain is during a drought.”

There is no substitute for planning ahead. This entails a documented strategy for “typical” conditions and also contingency procedures, which includes those actions that need to be taken in the event of drought.

Think ahead

The best means to prepare pastures for drought is good long-term pasture stewardship before the drought. The fact is that well-maintained pastures are more resilient during stress and recover more rapidly after stress.

In application, this means pastures are managed for long-term residual and litter cover, adequate growing season rest and recovery, soil fertility, and stocking rates that do not exceed carrying capacity. If these are performed well during favorable moisture conditions, the pastures will be in good condition when unfavorable conditions occur.

In today’s world, drought conditions in a region are usually forecast and certainly easily monitored as conditions change. The Drought Monitor is an excellent tool to track soil moisture conditions. Local weather data is also readily available and easily accessed in most locations. Weather and climate tools such as these allow producers to stay informed about regional weather conditions, which helps with the planning process; therefore, informed producers should not be caught off-guard as a drought materializes.

Prepare for the worst

When preparing for a drought, include an appropriate contingency plan that involves strategies and activities that can be executed in an orderly fashion as adverse conditions persist. Inventory your cattle by class, stored forages and standing forage to be grazed, and make an assessment of livestock water quantity and quality. It is also important to determine the period of time that the herd could be maintained if drought conditions persist and the length of time the herd could be retained if the stocking rate is incrementally reduced.

You must answer these questions:

  • What do I need to do to get to the next season of anticipated rainfall?
  • What do I need to do to get to the next spring growing season?
  • How can I accomplish this while limiting the long-term damage to the pastures caused by grazing livestock?

Take action

Once drought settles on a region, you need to begin implementing the plan. Your first thoughts should be on assessing the available and projected forage production over future time points, developing a destocking plan to allow for a marketing strategy of existing livestock if forage demand exceeds projected supply, and determining the critical dates when decisions will need to be made.

Typically, destocking strategies include:

• Early weaning of calves

• Marketing of growing cattle

• Marketing of open and problem cows

• Marketing of less uniform and poorer-performing cows with the intent of maintaining the most productive and uniform cows as the core herd

Relocating the core herd to other regions of the country that are not under drought conditions is also an option. Rarely is feeding through an extended drought a wise economic decision, but it is an option. However, early identification and purchase of required hay supplies in bulk before drought is fully realized is usually much more cost-effective than waiting until hay prices become inflated.

Next, assess livestock water supplies. Graze those pastures with unreliable or less dependable water supplies early while water is not limited in quantity or quality. Maintain adequate residuals in all pastures, especially the native grass pastures, where recovery is longer and more difficult to achieve than in introduced pastures. If pastures are to be grazed harder or shorter, or used as a “sacrifice area,” target introduced pastures such as bermudagrass, which with fertilization, weed management, and moisture can recover quickly. Avoid overutilization of native pastures.

Rotate and monitor

Regulate grazing by rotating the remaining cattle through pastures, monitoring closely the projected number of grazing days (weeks) ahead of the herd and the recovery rate of the pastures. If grazing expectations are not being met without overutilizing the pastures (grazing into the desired residual), implement destocking protocols and avoid “throwing open” all of the gates. Monitor the grazing, recovery, and residuals in the pastures throughout the duration.

If drought conditions manifest during the peak rainfall periods of spring and early fall, early and timely implementation of drought mitigation practices are of greater importance to meet projected production goals. Apply fertilizer, especially nitrogen, early at an adequate but conservative rate. Also, perform establishment practices early in the season, and only on the amount of acres that can be well-prepared ahead of planting. Apply herbicide only if the target weeds are actively growing and not drought-stressed, usually early in the season. Make weed control a priority over soil fertility on introduced pasture if one must be chosen over the other.

Unfortunately, many livestock producers learned too late that it’s a good practice during drought to plow and maintain fire guards or breaks along fence lines around the perimeter of your property. The same can be done around pastures, hay storage locations, and barns. This is especially effective along the southern borders that adjoin roads. With prevailing southerly winds, the south boundaries are the most likely to be threatened with wildfires. Finally, the regular planned use of prescribed fire on native pastures helps reduce buildup of plant material for wildfires to consume, aiding in suppression.

Have a safety net

Finally, participating in USDA Risk Management Agency’s Pasture, Rangeland, and Forage (PRF) insurance program can provide some assistance during droughts. The PRF insurance program is designed to provide coverage on your pasture, rangelands, and grazed forage crops. It gives producers the ability to cover replacement feed costs when a loss of forage for grazing or harvest is experienced because of lack of precipitation, not just during extreme drought.

Sign-up for the program is annually and occurs in the fall preceding the year of coverage. PRF insurance is supplied by local and regional independent insurance agencies and is well worth considering if you are a producer with grazing livestock and hay. It may not alleviate drought conditions, but it can make them easier to live through. That said, keep in mind that the best drought insurance for pastures is good long-term pasture management before and during the drought.

This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Grower on pages 22 and 23.

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