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Weathering drought

02/04/2013 @ 10:53am

With Daybreak Ranch lying in the middle of country prone to dry weather, Jim Faulstich and his family have seen their fair share of droughts. Over time, they've evolved a plan to help their operation better withstand dry spells and other disasters, such as hail, wildfires, or grasshopper outbreaks.

“With each drought that comes along, we try to learn from it and act accordingly; that makes us better prepared for the next one,” says Faulstich, who manages the Highmore, South Dakota, operation in partnership with his wife, Carol, and their daughter and son-in-law, Jacquie and Adam Roth.

By late summer of 2012, the family's preventive strategy was helping the operation withstand the dry conditions and the reduced grass growth then prevalent across north-central South Dakota.

Daybreak Ranch is a cow/calf operation comprising 350 pairs and some 8,000 acres of grass and cash crops. The family also custom-grazes yearling heifers and runs a commercial hunting enterprise. In 2009, they received the Region VII Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Five-pronged plan

Their five-pronged plan for weathering disasters (such as drought) is a tiered strategy that lets them juggle resources in a prioritized plan in response to worsening conditions.

1. Hold in reserve a year's worth of stored and standing forages. “In any given year, we have a number of pastures that don't get grazed,” says Faulstich.

Additional reserves of grass come from marginal land enrolled in the CRP. In dry years, the USDA typically releases these for grazing or haying later in the growing season, after birds have finished nesting.
When establishing stands of CRP, they plant warm-season varieties of native grasses. These green up later in the growing season than cool-season varieties, so they tend to have good nutrition at the time of midsummer CRP releases.

To provide additional reserves of forage, they have also planted warm-season native grasses on marginal cropland not enrolled in the CRP. Given current high prices for cash crops, they've chosen to sacrifice the greater short-term profit they might presently earn from growing crops rather than grass on such fields.

“A lot of this land is not conducive to being cropland, and it requires a lot of inputs to grow a crop,” says Faulstich. “We're in this business for the long haul. We believe that over the long term, growing grass on marginal acres is best for the land and more profitable than growing crops.”

2. Manage grazing to build resilience in soils and grasses. In pastures scheduled for grazing in a given year, they plan to graze each paddock just once and for no longer than five days at a stretch. Their intent is to leave in each paddock plenty of ground cover to shelter soil from wind and water erosion and to provide sufficient stubble height to trap snow.

They continually work to subdivide pastures in order to better match paddock size with the number of cattle that will achieve a uniform level of grazing across a given acreage in a short period of time.

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