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The Difficulty With Drought

The Difficulty With Drought
Dealing with a normal drought is tough enough. The current drought has upped the ante quite a bit.

You’d think that when drought’s heavy hand descends on the land with a whack as solid as most cattlemen have experienced the last year or two, that cow liquidation would have been fast, hard and heavy in 2012. But it wasn’t. Cattlemen hung onto females in hopes of rain and anticipation of higher calf markets.

With forecasts through March not showing much promise for any drought-breaking precipitation (, Derek Scasta says it may be time to put together a drought management plan to prepare for what 2013 might bring.

Scasta is a doctoral student in range management at Oklahoma State University and a former Extension agent in far West Texas, a land completely accustomed to drought. He says the magnitude of the current drought is greater because it extends into parts of the country that seldom, if ever, have to deal with long-term dry conditions. “People out West don’t say anything. The reason is, they’re used to it,” he says.

Drought is defined as 75% of normal for precipitation. “The more arid a region is, the more susceptible it is to drought,” he says. For example, the Southwest experiences drought 43% of the time. Cattlemen in the Southern Great Plains deal with drought 27% of the time, while those in the Northern Great Plains experience drought 21% of the time.

There are several methods for coping, he says. “But the first and most important method of coping with drought is setting your stocking rates at a light or moderate level” when pastures start to curl up. “There’s research that shows that during severe drought, light to moderate stocking rates were actually better than no grazing at all in terms of the plant community’s ability to respond,” he says. “And certainly those are better than overstocking.”

While that might be counterintuitive, he says range plants developed with grazing and have tolerance to grazing impact, even in a drought. However, drought-stricken pastures, even under light grazing, still require careful monitoring to ensure that no permanent damage is done to the plant community.

In 1962, a survey was done on four ranchers who survived the drought of the 1950s. “The difference, they believed, was that they had a conservative stocking rate before, during and after the drought,” Scasta says. “So their grazing management on the front end was in preparation for a drought.”

The second strategy is to reduce grazing numbers as early as possible. “And that’s a hard decision to make. I don’t know what the trigger is,” he says.

A Closer Look: Is it Time To Alter Your Grazing Management?

One way to set those trigger points is body condition. Scasta says the rule of thumb is any animal that loses more than 30% of its body weight is essentially done for. “So if you’ve got 1,200-lb. cows and they’ve lost 150-200 lbs., that might be a trigger for you to make a decision.”

The third strategy is to maintain flexibility in the herd. “Typically this is done with some class of animal that you can liquidate quickly, like stockers,” he says.

In many parts of cow country, drought is inevitable. So his final advice is to manage your pastures in a way that you can catch and retain as much water as possible. He tells of a rancher in West Texas who woke up every morning thinking of ways he could retain as much water that came onto his ranch as possible.

“He had some of the best quail habitat and more grass than anybody else,” Scasta says. “So water retention on your property is a principle that will serve you well.”

TAGS: Pasture
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