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Drought Planning

Group of black cattle near a stock dam that’s drying up under drought conditions.
Courtesy: USDA NRCS South Dakota

A drought plan will be an essential component to your overall grazing plan, as it provides guidance in making decisions during critical times when forage may be lacking. Generally, a drought plan will identify certain triggers, including calendar dates (that you determine) when critical management decisions are to be reviewed. For example, if you have not received adequate moisture by a pre-identified date, your drought plan may guide you through a destocking process in order to protect your grassland resources. Ultimately, a drought plan allows you to think clearly through action steps at a time when stress and emotion are elevated, resulting in a decision based on best business practices for your operation. Contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension or the South Dakota Grassland Coalition for more information regarding drought planning.

Tools for the Planning Process

Consider using the following tools to begin the drought-planning process for your operation.

  • Precipitation records: Keeping accurate monthly precipitation records is helpful to knowing your trigger dates and how much rainfall you need to take action. Some options for obtaining precipitation records on your ranch include:
    • Placing a rain gauge at the headquarters (or at pasture gates, if they are far from your headquarters) allows you to measure precipitation.

    • Automated weather stations are commercially available and can give you instant access to data either through the internet or directly imported into your computer.

  • Drought prediction: The NRCS has a drought-prediction tool that uses a network of weather station information, or information that can be customized to your personal farm/ranch weather data, to make estimates of forage production and stocking rates for the upcoming grazing season.
  • Trigger dates: These are calendar dates that you have determined to take action. Trigger dates include an evaluation of precipitation up to that time period, current market analysis, short-term future predictions, herd management options and implications of pasture health once desired action is taken.

Drought Mitigation Strategies

Flexibility in your herd is the key to a good drought plan.

  • Contract grazing: Yearlings or cow-calf pairs are a useful tool to allocate some of your annual forage resource to this enterprise so that when drought does occur, you do not have to destock your main herd.
  • Yearlings: Including yearlings as one of your grazing enterprises allows the flexibility to avoid destocking the main herd when drought occurs.
  • Culling early: Instead of waiting to check pregnancy or cull the unwanted cows from the herd in the fall, do it sooner to save forage resources in the summer.
  • Early weaning: Once cows are weaned from their calves, they consume much less forage. Calves can be sold or moved to a feedlot to reduce grazing pressure on pasture resources.
  • Purchase alternative feeds early in the season: If you have an early enough warning prior to drought, you might be able to purchase or pre-contract lower price for hay or other alternatives before the laws of supply and demand cause the prices to increase as the drought intensifies.
  • Alternative forages: You might be able to graze crop residues, cover crops or use annual forages as an alternative to pasture if these are available in your area.
  • Move livestock to another location: In some cases, it might be worth the cost to haul the livestock to a non-drought location and custom feed until conditions improve at home. This might be an option if the genetics of your herd are important enough to not destock.

The Healthy Grasslands article series is provided by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition in partnership with SDSU Extension. Contributing editors: Alexander J. Smart, Peter J. Bauman and Joshua Lefers. © South Dakota Grassland Coalition 2017. For more information, view the full publication or visit the South Dakota Grassland Coalition website.