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Weathering drought

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.

“Our goal is to be in a paddock for no longer than five days. In some cases, it turns out to be longer because more subdivision is needed,” says Faulstich.

A short duration of uniform grazing minimizes the chance of cattle repeatedly eating the most palatable and typically the most nutritious species of grasses and forbs. Repeated grazing reduces the vigor of desirable plants, letting the least palatable and least nutritious plants dominate the forage stand, which, consequently decreases diversity.

Water developments in paddocks encourage uniform grazing, which further fosters diverse plant growth.

“By maintaining diversity of grasses as well as forbs, we are able to get the benefit, for instance, of the native legumes that are so important to improving production,” says Faulstich.

A diverse population of plants provides variation in rooting depths below ground, and this improves moisture-use efficiency of the forage base. It also serves a variety of minerals to grazing animals through top growth.

“Because of plant diversity, we've been able to decrease the need to supplement minerals to cattle,” he says. “There's a lot of economic value in having diverse plants in pastures. Certainly this diversity helps us stay prepared for drought.”

3. store hay to shore up forage reserves. Holding a year's worth of forages in reserve also includes storing hay. “We have three hay sheds. In good years, we put up enough hay to fill these,” says Faulstich.

Though their goal is to graze year-round, they hold the hay as an emergency feed reserve only for times when dry weather reduces the availability of standing forage.

4. Monitor rain events. They pay particular attention to the presence or absence of fall and spring rains, and they manage resources accordingly. “With rainfall, we're always looking toward next year,” Faulstich says. “We've worked at understanding the moisture use on our ranch. From experience, we've learned that if we get rain in September and October — and particularly in April — we can pretty much count on getting spring grass growth.”

5. manipulate the number of grazing animals. If neither fall nor spring rains replenish soil moisture, the family considers adjusting the number of cattle to match the availability of forage.

In that regard, the custom grazing of yearling heifers is an elastic side venture, letting the ranch expand grass use in good years and shrink it in poor years. For instance, the family took in no outside cattle last year due to dry weather.

They charge a per-head grazing fee for the heifers, taking outside cattle with the owner's agreement to take them back on a two-weeks' notice. This lets the ranch respond rapidly to unexpected dry conditions during the growing season.

“If we get no rain, have no standing forage, and no hay, we may need to further reduce demand on the resource base by selling cows,” says Faulstich.

They prepare for this possibility each spring at calving time by identifying possible cull cows. They later graze these in a separate pasture with the yearling heifers. If adverse conditions warrant, they'll wean calves early from these cows, keep the calves, and sell the cows.

Keeping their operation diverse and flexible has gone a long way toward helping them withstand bouts of dry weather.

“By living through enough droughts and trying to learn from each one, we're better prepared than we used to be,” says Faulstich.

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Jim Faulstich | 605/852-2622

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