Ranchers in South Dakota prioritize water to help them optimize production during drought years.

December 21, 2017

5 Min Read
How one SD ranch gets their cows the No. 1 nutrient, regardless of drought
American Angus Association

By Morgan Marley

There’s a string of feelings you get when you step out onto the open prairie in western South Dakota. A feeling of peace and solitude at the sight of the rolling landscape with occasional buttes cutting into the horizon and specks of cattle scattered across the pasture.

Then, during the dry years, there’s also a feeling of derision. It’s as if the land is mocking you to let you know that no matter what you do, the dams will still be dry and the grass will burn up from the heat.

For ranchers in the area, all of these feelings are common. That’s especially true in tough times where drought lasts for a couple years. But just like the feelings that keep you up at night worrying what your next move will be, drought is inevitable. Even if there comes a downpour and the following few years are blessed with rain and green grass, drought will be back.

For ranches like Blair Brothers Angus Ranch, a 2017 BEEF Seedstock 100 operation, drought is something you must prepare for in advance and takes years to successfully accomplish.

Run by brothers Ed and Rich Blair, and their sons Chad and Britton, Blair Brothers Angus is basically a cow-calf operation as well as a seedstock outfit. There have always been cows and stocker calves on the ranch, but it has continued to grow and develop since.

Related:This is why you might consider early weaning for your young cows

And like every ranch family, they have adapted to the ups and downs Mother Nature hands them.

The average rainfall in their country near Sturgis, S.D., is 14 inches, but in the summer of 2017 they only got about 6 inches of precipitation. In addition to last summer being dry, Britton says it seems like there are more droughts than rainy seasons. But like other producers in the same situation, they have learned to deal with it.

“In droughts, it’s not all about how much rain you get, it’s the timing of when it comes,” Rich says. “We were doing pretty good this year with a limited amount of rain until it got hot in July. That’s when the grass burned up.”

When the grass burns up, you can almost guarantee the dams run dry, too. The Blair’s safeguard to protecting themselves against the drought is lightening their load. By that, they mean early weaning.

One of their strategies during a drought is to wean their calves at 100 to 140 days. This allows the cows freedom from chasing down their calves and producing milk, Britton says.

“Cows can get by on very little if they don’t have a calf sucking on them,” he says.

Drought years also serve as a good reminder to cull your herd of the old cows. It is also the reason it is important to keep replacement heifers when you can, to replace the cows that were sold, Rich says.

Water management

But perhaps even more important than early weaning and culling is the water. Installing a secure pipeline system in the pastures is extremely important to the herd and their ability to utilize what forage is available.

With dams being an unreliable source of water, adding a pipeline takes out one environmental factor to worry about. The Blairs say having a reliable water system will increase weaning rates and overall production.

They have seen it time and time again with the cattle they graze on leased land. Because much of the land they lease lacks a pipeline system, they often find themselves bringing the cattle home early to a dry lot. Britton says it’s not because they’re out of grass, but they’re out of water on those pastures.

The number one key to managing water is making sure there are plenty of water tanks in each pasture.

“We almost want a tank on every corner anymore,” Britton says. “It allows the cows to get to every corner of the pasture and better utilize the grass.”

In pastures where having a water tank at every corner isn’t necessarily a priority in a year with average rainfall, in a drought year it becomes a high priority. They’ve seen time and again where corners of the pasture without adequate water were not being covered by the cattle, leaving the grass there untouched.

“If the cows aren’t walking far enough to get to grass, that is something you’re not using,” Britton says.

Any good water system requires a lot of tanks and a lot of pipe. When installing a water system on your own operation, the number of cows in the pasture will help determine the amount of storage you need for an adequate amount of water.

“When the storage runs out and the tanks go empty, then you have problems and it’s hard to catch back up,” Britton says.

The Blair’s have managed to arrive at a water system that works best for their operation. They install all of their own water tanks using 10 to 12 foot tires from equipment used in the mines. The foundation must be level and the bottom filled with gravel so that it comes to about four inches above the hub. When adding the concrete, they pour the powder onto the floor of the tank and turn the water on. They have found the tanks hold better if the concrete isn’t mixed beforehand.

For many producers, the decision to install a pipeline system is one that isn’t made on a whim.

“I know putting in pipeline is hard to do,” Rich says. “It takes a lot of time and expenses. But it’s sure been well worth it in our operation.”

Without moisture to grow hay, the Blairs didn’t harvest enough feed for their winter needs. The only way they will have enough to feed their cattle through the winter is by purchasing it and hauling it to their operation.

They will find it and make it through the next season. Just like other ranchers in the same situation will, too. But in the meantime, they’ll keep praying for rain.

Marley is a master’s student at Colorado State University majoring in public communication and technology. She grew up on a cow-calf ranch in Arkansas and has interned for the communications department at the American Angus Association.

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