Ranchers will soon be able to make cost-saving decisions months in advance of a drought thanks to a new early livestock warning system available on the Internet and through local advisories.
By using range site assessments and participation of ranchers across the state, range conditions can be correlated with weather conditions to predict an upcoming pattern of dry weather up to 60 days in advance, researchers say.
The information can be distributed through the Internet by county where ranchers access the information and make timely decisions well in advance of a drought.
"The goal of the program is to put into place an early warning system for the livestock industry here in Texas and design that system where all producers can access the information in a timely manner," said Jerry Stuth, director of the Center for Natural Resource Information Technology with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station.
"Also, we want ranchers to have access to information in how to deal with and mediate some of the negative impacts of the drought." The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station has provided $50,000 in research funds for the early warning system.
"It's our hope we can develop a system well enough to let the Texas Legislature look at the technology and see it's a worthwhile program to move it into a state-run effort and help ranchers all over Texas," Stuth said.
Travis Miller, an agronomist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, told members of the National Drought Policy Commission Jan. 25 in Austin that a similar system is being developed for crop farmers at the Blacklands Research Center in Temple.
Part of predicting a pattern of dry weather, Stuth said, is to analyze weather models and put that data into other models that can predict how forage is going to respond to rainfall. Fecal samples are also taken from animals that can allow researchers to predict future dietary protein and energy content requirements.
"You can place that into a software package, which in turn would allow us to predict their performance," Stuth said. "So, essentially what you are doing is coupling advanced weather technology, or modeling technology and animal monitoring technology to try and get a feel for direction and trends that animals and forages may be going in the state."
Through rancher participation, producers can pick up a fecal sample and send it to the test lab by two-day delivery mail.
"In 48 hours, we can tell them what the animal's diet is on their property and how their animal is performing," Stuth said. "Any mediation they want to use such as supplemental feed, or destocking their pasture, we can quickly tell them."
Through satellite technology called Normalized Vegetation Difference Index, it is possible to pinpoint a rancher's property and determine forage conditions. The technology allows researchers to address a producer's particular needs, but also help producers in other areas that haven't sent in fecal samples, Stuth said.
Testing will begin in 20 counties in the Frio River Basin, Middle Concho West and Wichita watersheds. The testing will involve the cooperation of at least one rancher in each county who will send a monthly feces sample to be analyzed in order to monitor the nutritional profile of his herd.
"The aim here is to provide landowners and livestock operators with information about not only weather conditions they can obviously see, but conditions of forage that have been created by weather to date," said Richard Conner, a rangeland economist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and research team member. "We can integrate that with some probabilities of the chances of those conditions changing in the near future."
Conner said the system will allow ranchers to make timely financial decisions in advance of dry weather conditions.
"If they knew they would have to have another 60 days of feed supply to grow off a set of calves, they would know what they are facing in terms of the probability of forage that grows on their land, or whether they will have to look for other sources like purchasing hay."
Stuth said the system will also be available to those who don't own a computer.
"Our plan is for it to be available through several means," he said.
"The Internet is going to be the primary source for delivery. We will also have advisories through county Extension agents' offices and through the local media as well."
Wayne Hamilton, director of the Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management at Texas A&M University and member of the research team, said drought assistance agencies at both the state and federal level will benefit from the system.
"When a producer has lost everything and has to sell everything at low prices, then they get drought assistance," Hamilton said. "Once [the system] is in place, it will allow [agencies] some lead time to be able to get financial help to people in a timely fashion instead of after the fact."
The research will begin once the test ranches are established, which is expected to begin this summer. The program will be put into place with actual data sometime next year.