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Rancher prepares drought plan to save grass, soil and cows

An important part of Bart Carmichael's drought plan is herd management by key dates when the rains stay away. Courtesy photo

Recent storms added some precipitation to southwest South Dakota, but the current drought map still shows wide areas of the state in moderate to severe drought. While spring isn’t quite here yet, farmers and ranchers prepare to deal with drier soils.

Bart Carmichael knows of drought challenges during his three decades as a cow-calf rancher near Faith, S.D. Taking care of grass and soil in his pastures is top priority to optimize current and future grazing and ranch resiliency.

“In the 2017 drought, we rotated the cattle quicker between pastures because the grass wasn’t growing. After 10 months, we pulled the cattle totally off pasture and put them in the feedlot for four months. That actually turned out to be a good thing.”



DROUGHT PLAN

His goal is to graze the herd for 12 months a year. “The longest we’ve ever had cattle rotating between pastures is 11 months. When the weather dictates we can’t graze, we’ll put them on hay, move them off pasture or do whatever it takes for the time being. But when the drought breaks, we go back right to grazing the same pasture where we left off,” Carmichael said.



An important part of his drought plan is herd management by key dates when the rains stay away. “Even just running mother cows on pasture, we have ranked them by A, B, and C herds. When drought forces a stocking rate reduction, the C herd is sold right away. That way you can keep your core. If drought severity continues, then the B group goes next,” he said.

Bart and Shannon Carmichael on their ranch near Faith, S.D. Courtesy photo

This scenario played out in the 2017 drought. “We sold the C and B herds, keeping our core A herd, which we put in a feedlot for four months. When the weather finally changed, we still had grass left that responded to spring moisture, so we were good to go. Our plan to adapt and do what you have to do, is better than holding on to the bitter end,” Carmichael said. He figures he has enough grass this year until October. Carmichael is one of the growing number of ranchers who subscribes to the “Rotate, rest, and recover” grassland management rule of thumb.

SOUND ECONOMICS

Carmichael has witnessed area ranchers try to graze through a drought. “We had a neighbor one time try to run an entire herd on pasture through two years of drought. The first year it didn’t rain, he grazed all of his old grass off. During the following spring without rain, he sold all of his cows for $1,300 a pair. We had already sold only our C herd at that point, and because of our drought plan we didn’t have to pull the plug on all of them. When it finally rained, he ended up buying heifer calves back for $1,300 a head that fall. So economically, it’s pays not to hold on to the bitter end, and risk losing everything,” he said.

Growing Resilience Through Our Soils is an educational effort supported by the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, and the South Dakota USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


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