The time to prepare for drought is not during a drought |

The time to prepare for drought is not during a drought

Amy Hadachek
for The Fence Post
Storm clouds gather as cows graze at the USDA-ARS Central Plains Experimental Range near Nunn, Colo.
Photo by David Augustine/USDA-ARS

It’s the story of big climatological differences across Nebraska, as the state comes off of a year of records in 2019, with last year (2019) being the third wettest on record, while drought currently covers the western one-third of Nebraska, as well as northeast Nebraska and south central Nebraska.

“2019 was exceptional, with highly impactful weather events,” said Martha Shulski, director of the Nebraska State Climate Office and associate professor in the School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who was a key speaker during the virtual 20th annual Nebraska Grazing Conference on Aug. 11. “Timing and location of precipitation can mean everything. It wasn’t just a storm that caused the major impact in Nebraska last year, we had a cold, wet winter, a lot of snow on the ground, frozen soils, and rapid melting that all led to major impacts.”

Shulski discussed past, current and future climate trends, noting Nebraska’s temperatures are more variable than global averages.


How will 2020 finish out? Some eyebrow-raising answers begin with temperatures trending higher than normal for 2020 in Nebraska.

“Nebraska has seen a warming by 1.5 degree, with nights warming more than days, and there’s a trend toward wetter conditions, mainly in our spring seasons. Climatologically speaking, eastern Nebraska receives more precipitation than the western part of the state but the trend is for increasing precipitation, overall,” Shulski said.

For autumn, the Climate Prediction Center’s outlook for September, October and November 2020 favors warmer than normal temperatures from western Kansas into the Rocky Mountain states. Precipitation points to wet (in North Dakota), however below-average precipitation is forecast for the Rocky Mountain states, southwest Nebraska, and the western half of Kansas and Oklahoma.

“We also expect the warming in Nebraska to increase at an unprecedented rate, than what it’s been historically,” Shulski said. “We expect a shift of drier conditions in summer, with a wetter winter and spring, and more extremes with Nebraska’s climate future.” Her climate prediction includes a longer growing season by several weeks with more evaporative demand with an increased water requirement, longer summers, hot nights, more hot days with more extreme rainfall events.

“The magnitude of expected changes will exceed those experienced in the last century. Regarding large scale events, luckily we’ve been pretty wet (2019) so we have a fair amount of water in soil profile. So when we dried out with high winds and evaporative conditions, it was actually okay since we came off a very wet year, she said.

To deal with the new weather outlook, Shulski said producers should plan for overall warmer and wetter climate punctuated by droughts and weather extremes, which she expects to see magnified in the future.

Non climate influences also play a role for farmers and ranchers.

“Climate is a stressor, but there are other stressors too such as economic conditions, pricing and what is profitable for producers in ranching and grazing, given the cost and return on investment,” Shulski said.


There are a couple things that set the benchmark, in terms of exceptionally low rangeland production. When the ‘climate drivers’ Pacific Decadal Oscillation and El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) are both in cool phases together, dry conditions occur about 50 percent of the time, said Justin Derner, research leader for the USDA-ARS Rangeland Resources and Systems Research Unit. Derner was also a speaker during the Nebraska Grazing Conference.

In the Great Plains, 1934 and 1956 were two of the worst years in 20th century records with tremendous soil loss and erosion.

Precipitation has increased the past 30 years across Nebraska except for places in the Nebraska Panhandle.

“In general, forage quality for grazing is highest in May, but then as plants begin to mature — quality declines across the grazing season. We see two-thirds of livestock’s seasonal weight gain in the first half of the grazing season.” Derner said.

Projecting 21st century conditions, Derner said forage production increased by one-third, but rangeland quality decreased by 13 percent for nitrogen content.

“For livestock managers, it’s recommended to have adaptive management, prescribed fire to increase forage quality, and consider adding legumes to the diet through interseeding or as cover crops to boost forage quality.


Two livestock producers participating in the online conference shared their plans which have been successful in extreme weather.

John Halstead is ranch manager of Fawn Lake Ranch in Gordon, Neb., comprised of 63,792 acres of continuous prairie in the Nebraska Sandhills, and Melinda and Shannon Sims of Sims Cattle Company, McFadden, Wyo.

For the 1,900 animal units on the massive Fawn Lake Ranch in western Cherry County, Nebraska, including 775 yearling bison, 1,200 breeding cows, the ranch is divided into 62 pastures, which enables them to control grazing, set aside forage for winter grazing, and give pastures important longer rest periods.

“Rest periods are very important,” Halstead said. “I don’t graze anything for 14 months after a growing season grazing event,” Halstead added that Fawn Lake is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather-ready ranch.

“Being weather-ready is building flexibility into a grazing plan, then adapting to whatever nature throws my way. We’re conservative in our stocking rate, and defer grazing to have forage for winter use or during a drought.”

The range is healthier when having animals moving over it, rather than keeping them in one place for a long time, Halstead said. “This helps so livestock don’t go back for a second bite on the decreasers, and potentially injure the root system.”

“Think about what your goals are. One of our goals is to increase the diversity of native species, which is more resilient to environmental extremes. Our core herd is cows, calves and breeding bulls. If we’re behind on rain and it’s not looking good, we’ll pull our yearlings in, and save that pasture for our core cowherd,” said Halstead, who also maintains a stockpile of hay for a drought reserve.

Clippings are measured to determine how much forage is available and ensure it isn’t over-utilized.

“I estimate, clip and weigh a few different places in a pasture, and factor in the herd’s forage needs to determine the correct grazing duration for the pasture,” he said. “We use a photo point monitoring system. I set a hoop down and take a straight down photo to see the 90-inch cable hoop, GPS that location, and take three steps back for a photo, which tells a thousand words.” A plant species inventory inside the hoop helps him determine if its trending in a positive direction.

At the Sims Ranch in McFadden, success with their large cow herd on 18,000 acres of rangeland revolves around decision making.

“Drought management is not something we do in a drought, but rather everyday in management. We live at 7,200 feet, and the ranch goes up to 9,000 feet. Our frost free days top out at 50 days and we have all cool season grasses. All growth happens in June, with some in September and October, and all moisture is in spring,” said Melinda Sims, who runs the ranch with her husband Shannon.

Melinda well remembers 2012.

“In 2012, drought hit us hard.”

The Sims learned lessons during a tough challenge.

“Before managing for drought annually in 2002, we had to sell 17 percent of our cow herd due to drought,” Melinda said. “We realized the importance of resting pastures. Then, we built the herd to pre-drought numbers on two-thirds of our land. Even after a drought from 2012 to 2013, they maintained the entire herd, and in 2014, the industry saw record calf prices.”

The Sims’ drought plans involve moving cows and reserving hay.

“We rest one-third of our pastures every year,” Melinda said. “We typically move our cows every three days, but in a drought — we might move them everyday. We also move our cows onto hay meadows in the breeding season, and keep a year’s worth of hay in reserve.” ❖

— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at