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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Drought Advice

Despite the difficult situation, be proactive in making management decisions.
by Kindra Gordon  ( Hereford World Magazine, October 2012; Vol. 103,  No. 5)

The drought of 2012 will certainly go down in the history books as one of the driest years ever.  It is certainly a difficult and depressing time for the farm and ranch industry.  But, farmers and ranchers are a strong bunch who are used to pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and persisting - no matter what conditions are thrown their way.

We have gathered a collection of advice from the industry to help land managers navigate through this drought and look to the future. Chan Glidewell with the Noble Foundation says the principles of range management  are as important during a drought as ever.  Foremost is to maintain proper stocking rates.

He explains that proper stocking rate means matching the actual stocking rate to the carrying capacity of the land.  Stocking rate is the amount of grazing pressure applied to pastures from all grazing animals including cows and other livestock.  The carrying capacity for a particular area is the amount of forage the land can produce, and this changes from year to year based on precipitation and prior management.

Stocking rate should be adjusted each year to reflect carrying capacity - and must especially be reduced during a drought year when the carrying capacity declines.  To adjust may mean feeding supplemental hay or feedstuffs - or selling some of the livestock.

Glidewell also emphasizes that maintaining stubble height of the forage on the land is important for water holding capacity.  As a rule of thumb, it is suggested landowners maintain grazing heights for introduced grasses above three-inch residual height and for native grasses above a six-inch residual height.

Glidewell explains that the shorter that grasses are grazed, the shallower the root systems become.  Shallow root systems inhibit the plants' ability to obtain water that is deeper in the soil profile.  It also reduces their ability  to act as a water filter when it does rain.  Without this filtering effect, rainfall washes sediments (soil) into our ponds, lakes, rivers and streams.

Manage, manage, manage
Experienced landowners know that drought is a normal part of the climate.  And seasoned rancher also know that the best way to manage drought is to plan and prepare for it before it occurs.  A new website has been developed to help landowners do just that - to plan and prepare for and manage drought.  The site- available at  www.drought.unl.edu/ranchplan - waslaunched during the summer of 2011 by the National Drought Mitigation Center at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The website spotlights several ranchers across the Great Plains and their drought management efforts.  Materials on the site are generally applicable to the Great Plains - from Texas to North Dakota.  Sections on the site include information  about:
~Drought basics
~Inventory and monitoring
~Strategies to consider before drought
~Strategies to consider during drought
~Strategies to consider after drought
~Writing a drought plan

Bottomline:  It is important to stay in control of the livestock and continue to rotate them to provide periods of active rest to the plants.  Active rest is allowing the plants to rest while they are growing, which is needed  for recovery of plant health and vigor.  Glidewell says if hay feeding is required, select a poorly producing , preferably introduced, grass pasture as a sacrifice pasture.  Feed livestock in the sacrifice pasture instead of degrading  all pasture equally.  He adds, "Remember:  heavy culling or selling of livestock is not the same as giving up - it is a part of managing and best done proactively.  In fact, strategic culling and selling of livestock may be the most economically feasible way to survive a drought."

...Lessons Learned
... Tonya Haigh, a rural sociologist who  helped coordinate the drought website said,  "Severe drought can undermine anyone's plans and the choices rangeland manager must make can be difficult."  But she adds,  "The landowners we've surveyed emphasize that the planning you do early is definitely beneficial.  This website is focused on defining drought options before the drought happens."  "Then if your monitoring indicates a drought situation , the plan is there and the stress and uncertainty has less of an impact on your decisions."  HW

When it does start to rain...
Even when rain eventually comes, Bruce Anderson, Extension forage specialist with the University of Nebraska, says,  "The worst may be still to come.  Because drought and grazing weakened most perennial pasture plants, grass stands and plant vigor have been reduced and opportunities for weeds to invade are great."

Anderson points out that fall rains could easily stimulate an unprecedented invasion of winter annuals like cheatgrass, wild oats and downy brome.  Or spring rains could encourage the population of plants like ragweed to explode.

Recovery of grazing capacity might be slow, and producers need to be vigilant in observation and anticipation of weed outbreaks, as well as be prepared with all the tools at their disposal - like herbicides, mowing and grazing management - to deal with these challenges as timely as possible, he concludes.  HW