Range management more than just having enough grass
By Kylene Scott
There’s a lot more to proper range management during drought than just pulling the livestock off of the grass when it gets short. In order for a ranch to survive and remain resilient, managers must have a plan.
In an ongoing webinar series by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, ranchers can explore each aspect of developing a drought plan for their own operation. The webinars are led by ranchers and advisors with hands-on experience in drought planning and range management.
In the first part of the series, Lewellen, Neb., rancher Lynn Meyers said it is all about attitude when looking at developing a drought plan.
“Drought disasters from a rancher’s point of view is a box of challenges, and you can look at it with an attitude of either half full or half empty,” he said. “Take that disaster box and make it a window of opportunity.”
Being stagnant and continuing on the same old path sets up for failure, Meyers said.
“A rancher must understand and admit that doing nothing multiplies the problem,” he said. “Planning makes the problem more palatable and manageable. It doesn’t solve the problem but it makes you proactive instead of reactive.”
Destocking a ranch is part of a drought plan in order to survive the lean times when precipitation is lacking and grass can’t grow.
“For most ranchers destocking is a really difficult decision when you spend a lifetime putting a herd together that fits you and your environment,” Meyers said. “It’s really like losing a family.”
For Meyers totally destocking would be extremely hard, but he is now looking for solutions. Some things he came up with include:
—Shipping cows to another location;
—Placing a core cowherd into a feedlot until the grass recovers; and
—Finding other feed sources.
“In a few years there’s going to be a shortage of numbers in the feedlot and maybe that’s a way to keep a core of cows is to put them in a feedlot if you don’t have enough feed on your own place,” Meyers said.
Meyers said one of the most important things to a rancher is the land.
“Take care of the land. The land will take care of the cattle and the cattle will take care of you,” Meyers said. “When making suggestions as to what you’re doing, remember to find opportunities exist besides just completely destocking. It’ll make it more palatable.”
For Myers’ ranch they looked at the grazing season and their rotations and planned accordingly. Last year they had a target date of June 4 to implement “Plan A.” In that plan, cow populations would be considered for culling. These included fall cows, fall calves and yearlings and dry cows. Going through those herds with a fine-toothed comb was enough for them to survive 2012.
“That was enough. We had enough residual from our years-before grazing system that we got by. We didn’t have to use Plan B or Plan C, but they were in the plan,” Meyers said. “It was part of our flexibility we could get rid of old cows or poor genetic cows and wean their calves early and sell them”
In 2012, Meyers also had a few custom grazed herds on his ranch and took the herds in with stipulation that he could remove them after 30 days.
“We didn’t have to do that. We had enough residual,” Meyers said. “We also had Plan C, but didn’t have to use it, but it is part of the plan.”
For 2013 Meyers has a plan of action that would develop as the season goes along. In his part of Nebraska, ranchers allot 20 acres per cow when there is normal moisture. When it is dry it’s backed off to 15 acres per cow. In Meyers’ best-case scenario, he could run 300 cows and 200 yearling heifers; worst case it’s down to 50 cows and 50 yearlings.
“If it stays dry—I think we have enough grass growth that would be relative to the moisture we’ve received by the time the cool-season grasses would be getting started,” Meyers said. “If we’re short 25 percent of the normal moisture at that time, we’re probably going to be at least 25 percent less than normal amount (of grass).”
Also quantifying your program and cowherd can come into play.
“If you have a really good program, it’s not going to be quite as much of a shock as if it would be if you had a poor program,” Meyers said. “In our case, I think our program is pretty good, but we’re still figuring out that we’re going see 20 percent less than normal growth of grass if we have normal moisture.”
By April 1, Meyers will re-inventory his hay in storage, and hopes to have what it will take to get him to June 1. On May 1 he will implement the options outlined in his drought plan, allowing him to decide what to do with his cowherd. By June 1 the final stock adjustments will be made depending upon the moisture received on his ranch.
“This last year in 2012, we were getting rid of stuff in June when we had our trigger date and within two weeks—I kept track of the cattle that sold in June and they went down $40,000 in value,” Meyers said. “If we hadn’t been proactive and kept with the plan we’d have lost that.”
Jerry Volesky, range and forage systems specialist with the University of Nebraska at North Platte, explained eight parts of a ranch drought plan. Each part of the process is pretty important, he said, but each ranch is different.
“I think it’s important that each individual operation—it’s up to them how much detail or precision they put in the drought plan they develop or put together,” Volesky said.
First, communication and planning partners need to be involved. This includes getting everybody involved with the operation on board and having them involved with the planning process. Ranch vision is also a big part of the planning process and drought plans should match the operation’s goals. Third, Volesky said to use SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) when deciding on aspects of drought readiness.
“In other words, what are your strengths and weaknesses in your particular ranch in regards to drought?” Volesky said.
Fourth, inventory ranch resources. Know what the forage production potential is in the particular livestock and grazing operation; precipitation records also can be helpful. Fifth, critical or trigger dates. These dates involve precipitation and forage production.
“This concept is just about monitoring precipitation amounts and looking at those critical or important dates for the coming season,” Volesky said. “When there are deficits, it triggers some kind of management decision and brings things back into balance. It’s all really based on that relationship of course between precipitation and what we see in terms of pasture production.”
Also to consider in the fifth step are the following:
—Previous year conditions;
—Soil moisture stats;
—Temperatures (warm versus cold)
—Longer-term weather forecast models.
“Climatologists are much better at longer-term forecasts,” Volesky said. “If we watch and follow we should be able to glean information and make decisions regarding drought plans.”
Sixth, and very important, Volesky said, is the monitoring. Recordkeeping is a must and the plan relies heavily on the critical dates for the operation. The seventh step, management strategies before, during and after drought, include grazing and animal management strategies; alternative forages; and economic evaluation.
“You really have to develop a portfolio of different management strategies that you can use before, during and after drought and these include different types of grazing rotations,” Volesky said. “You may also be able to use alternative forages—and if you have some crop land to devote to forages do that.”
Volesky said by knowing how much forage savings or gains that result a rancher can determine different strategies or actions. Those gains or savings must equal or exceed the anticipated deficits due to drought. Ranchers must also understand short- and long-term drought impacts of drought on pasture resources.
The final step—an ongoing need for review of the drought plan is very important, but also haves a learning curve.
“Every drought is somewhat different. It’s a complex situation. We have all of these different interactions going on related to the amount of precipitation, which part of the growing season that precip falls in or when it’s very dry,” Volesky said. “So it can make the resulting impact or longer-term effects of drought a little bit difficult to interpret.”
There are five webinars in the series. The first two, Jan. 30 and Feb. 27, are archived on the Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch website, http://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan. The remaining dates are:
—March 27: The New Cumulative Forage Reduction Index: Assessing Drought Impacts and Planning a Grazing Strategy, by Pat Reece, owner and senior consultant of Prairie Montane Enterprises and Professor Emeritus of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
—April 24: Using a Drought Calculator to Assist Stocking Decisions, Stan Boltz, state range management specialist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota.
—May 29: Economic Factors to Weigh in Making Decisions during Drought, by Matt Stockton, agricultural economist at the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, Neb.
Each one-hour webinar will start at 10 a.m. (CT) with a briefing on current drought status and what to expect in the foreseeable future, followed by a session on a specific topic or tool related to drought planning, and question-and-answer time.
The sessions are free and open to the public. Registration is required to receive the Adobe Connect webinar link. To register, go to http://go.unl.edu/uwk. Please contact Tonya Haigh, National Drought Mitigation Center and SARE project coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org, 402-472-6781, with any questions.
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804, or by email at email@example.com.