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Check out this South Dakota rancher’s drought plan

Sound soil health, leaving grass behind, and giving pastures lots of rest are keys to enduring drought.

If there’s an epicenter for drought, its central and western South Dakota. Still, South Dakota ranchers like Dan Rasmussen are persevering through these difficult times as is profiled in this story by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

South Dakota’s drought is bad and getting worse. Meanwhile, a new, long-range forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers little hope for green pastures ahead.

“It’s dry,” says Dan Rasmussen, who ranches near Belvidere in west-central South Dakota. “Dig a hole in the pasture and it’s dry going down – people who are putting in water lines say it’s dry down 5 feet. We’re hurting. A lot of cows have gone through the sale barn, and a lot of calves. I’m looking at less than 50% of the average forage production.”

Last week’s Drought Monitor Map (March 31) showed drought is creeping farther across the state and increasing in intensity. The map shows almost twice as many acres of severe drought – 46% of the state – compared with 25% the previous week.

Backed into a Corner

Historically, impacts of severe drought include early cattle sales, low water supplies in stock ponds, and a shortage of hay.

“The long-range NOAA forecast has us drier than normal through August,” Rasmussen says. “We’re all backed into a corner, up against it. But I know the ranchers who practice soil health, leave grass behind, give pastures a lot of rest – they’re ahead of the game.”

Rasmussen has had a drought plan with such practices for more than 25 years. 

Dan Rasmussen
Dan Rasmussen

“Good range management is the basis of every drought plan,” he said. “Nature wants you to protect the land by using good grazing practices. So, we’ve been doing that and seeing benefits in dry years. That’s the first part of our drought plan. The second part is to start selling livestock. We have different kinds of livestock on this ranch; cow-calf, yearling steers and heifers, organic yearling heifers, and purchased yearlings.

“Our plan is to start selling yearlings,” he says. “We’re going to implement that pretty quickly, in the next few weeks. We also sold the lower-class cows last winter. We’ve downsized our cow herd, we’re in a position to sell 400 to 500 yearlings, and that takes a lot of pressure off the pastures.”

Let Grasses Rebound, Begin a New Grazing Plan

Tanse Herrmann, NRCS state grazinglands soil health specialist, says the drought is already impacting South Dakota’s ranching communities. 

“I’m hearing an unusual number of livestock are being sold early,” he says. “I don’t take the drought lightly — everyone will be affected.”

Tanse Herrmann
Tanse Herrmann

However, Herrmann said that ranchers with a good rotation and resilient grasses and soils will fare better than those who didn’t have ground cover going into winter. 

“Healthy soils infiltrate rainwater much more quickly than soils with high degrees of disturbance, such as overgrazing,” he says. “Surface protection by plant residues — ungrazed plants — is a critical piece of high functioning soils, even in drought.”

He suggests ranchers who are forced to sell more livestock than intended might take advantage of more free time to attend a grazing school, rub elbows with mentors who have been through droughts, and begin to consider a new approach to grazing for resilient soils and grasslands. Help is available from NRCS offices in every South Dakota county, he said, and mentors are willing to spend time with other ranchers. Meanwhile, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition has established this website for drought information. 

Difficult Decisions

“It’s a scary thing, and difficult to make rational decisions in a drought,” Rasmussen says. “It’s important to find somebody who’s been through a number of droughts, someone you can talk to and discuss ideas. Does nature want you to keep your cows on pasture till it’s black? That’s not a good idea. Instead, start planning and figuring ways to destock or further destock your herd. 

“Then be prepared to bring it back, bring those numbers back,” he says. “That’s the key to good range management, healthy soil and healthy pastures. It will rain again. And when it rains, if the pastures weren’t grubbed down, if they were in good shape going into the drought, they’re going to come back really quick.”

Rasmussen said the drought is going to hurt, no matter what, but suggests ranchers can still be prepared and offered this advice to his peers: “Think ahead, at least six or eight months, instead of letting yourself become a victim of circumstance. Every drought we go through we’re a little better prepared for the next one, because you learn.”

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