Find the opportunities during drought
Drought can be devastating to farmers and ranchers, but with careful planning producers can survive it and even come out on top financially.
“When it’s raining, it’s hard to remember what it was like when it was dry,” said Tonya Haigh with the National Drought Mitigation Center.
“That’s why we recommend planning for drought, because we know the dry spells are going to come,” she said. “Drought is a hazard. It impacts forage capacity, damages rangeland health and decreases aquifer levels. Most people think there is nothing you can do about what happens to you during drought, and that you just have to survive it and go on.”
However, Highmore, S.D., rancher Jim Faulstich has found that planning before a drought has become a critical part of getting his ranch through it. “I have actually found that drought can be beneficial,” he said. “There are positive opportunities that can happen during a drought.”
In his own operation, Faulstich has used drought to improve genetics and clean up problem animals. He keeps two herds of cattle. The second group of cows are ones with problems like big bags, bad eyes or a not so perfect disposition. He keeps these cows with his heifers and breeds them for a short season. “If I need to pull the trigger because it’s dry and we don’t have enough forage, I can easily disperse those,” he said. “It’s nice to have that option.”
Haigh reminds producers how important it is to maximize the health and flexibility of an operation before drought. “Monitor the health of resources and precipitation, as well as soil moisture and the plant, itself,” she said. “Maximizing the health of resources can be through the grazing system or adjusting the stocking rate and resource base. Maximizing the hydrologic base and plant diversity in the rangeland system are also important.”
Faulstich sees drought as an opportunity to improve infrastructure and natural resources on the ranch. “During a drought, the government will usually step forward with emergency cost-share programs,” he said. “I take advantage of that by putting in waterlines and new water sources. On our operation, we have made natural resources a priority. As a result, we have an increase in wildlife, which is a good indicator of how healthy our land is.”
Drought has also shown Faulstich the importance of wetlands, and how they can be used to survive a drought. “Wetlands have saved us a number of times when it is dry,” he said. “We have windrowed cattails, chopped them up and poured molasses on them. One winter, we fed them to the cows along with some ear corn I was able to buy.”
“While we can’t control whether or not it rains, we can control what we do before, during and after drought,” Haigh said. “Recovery can really change the impact drought can have. The more we can do to minimize the impact, the better off we are.”
A drought plan could be more accurately called a disaster plan, Faulstich said, because it should also cover other disasters like fire, storms and insect damage. “Every operation is different, so there is no drought plan that will be the exact same as someone else. It applies to large operations as well as small ones,” he said “Profitability, sustainability, and resilience are all important to the ranching business, and they require working with nature, diversity, flexibility and soil health.”
In a drought situation, Faulstich said the decisions made are the result of basic business plans he learned the hard way. He points out a photo from his own operation where a piece of land looks grazed to the ground. “It was actually one of the nicest pieces we ever had. It was 18 inches to 2 feet tall, and then we got snow and 3 inches of rain on it. It formed a layer of ice and was just like concrete. There was no grazing left. It was our winter pasture, and if we wouldn’t have had a drought plan, we wouldn’t have been prepared for it,” he said. “It is situations like this that bring us that much closer to be ready for a drought.”
Another year, they left one acre plots of corn in the field, harvesting strips in-between those one acre plots. “We moved those cows every day, but it was the cheapest we had ever wintered cows. We grazed 320 cows per acre per day,” he said. “A lot of it was poor quality corn where some didn’t tassel or make ears. It was a way to utilize that.”
Faulstich also paid for three hay sheds in three years many years ago by selling hay to a dairy farmer in another state suffering from drought. “We keep those three hay sheds full. Our goal is to never use any of that hay, but of course we do. Some of it in one of the buildings is pretty old, and will need some supplement fed with it, but another shed has some top quality alfalfa” he said.
Between harvested feed, grazing grass and standing crops, Faulstich keeps a year’s supply of forage available at all times. He has also used planning to establish flexibility in his operation. A custom grazing program was added to the operation that allows him to graze yearlings on a piece of invasive bromegrass in the spring, without having to invest in the cattle or worry about rain. “It is built into the contract that they have two weeks to remove the cattle if we are running out of grazing,” he said. “It provides us some flexibility from a drought standpoint, while giving us some enterprise opportunity.” ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.