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How to drought-proof a ranch

You can’t make it rain on your ranch in the middle of a drought. But you can put pastures and cattle in a better position to survive it, says Hugh Aljoe, director of producer relations for the Noble Research Institute (noble.org). Here’s his formula for preemptive drought management.

Track Long-Term Precipitation

Droughts don’t happen overnight. Aljoe says your water-year really starts in about October for the following grazing season. Track your precipitation from October through the end of March and compare that with your long-term averages available from the National Weather Service.

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“For most locations, about 40% of your precipitation for the entire year will occur in that period,” he says. “If at the end of March you’re below the long-term average, monitor your situation more closely in anticipation of making some changes to management and stocking rates.”

Then, Aljoe says, even more closely follow rainfall amounts in April, May, and June. “I like to set some early critical assessment dates, such as the end of May or the end of June. If you’re 20% or more below normal for the water-year at that point, you should be looking to destock your herd by about 20% due to reduced forage availability.”

That puts you ahead of the drought, Aljoe says. “It’s preemptive management. Destock early before you get into a more desperate situation. You may get a better market price, too.”

The 80:20 Stocking Rule

Aljoe encourages a conservative stocking rate at or below normal carrying capacity. It gives you greater flexibility in a drought.

He also likes a system that protects your cow herd from the need to destock. “Those cows are your most important asset – your genetic factory,” he says. “You don’t want to have to sell your best cows in a drought. I suggest cow-calf ranchers figure out their normal cow carrying capacity in an average rainfall year, then stock cows at about 80% of that.” 

To utilize the remaining 20% of pasture capacity, carry over some of your calves from the previous season as stocker cattle, Aljoe suggests. Or buy stockers as the grazing season comes on. “They become your flex herd to cull early when it becomes obvious you need to destock. They’re your built-in contingency plan so a drought doesn’t put you in a desperate situation of having to sell the factory,” says Aljoe. 

Some years, those stockers may be the most profitable animals you graze, he adds.

Invest in a Water System

Droughts don’t just limit your forage availability. Drinking ponds and shallow wells suffer, too, limiting access to some remote pastures. “Investments in water infrastructure in anticipation of a drought pay long-lasting dividends,” Aljoe says. “Look for areas where you could have an issue in a drought, and make a plan for the water and fencing.” 

Aljoe suggests you graze your more remote and water-risk pastures first. They may have good water early in the season. As the season progresses, work cattle back to areas with better water supplies.

Graze Well

A drought will challenge your grazing management skills like no other natural event, Aljoe says. You’ll need to work harder at monitoring your reserve grazing capacity – what you have available in the coming weeks. 

“If you rotationally graze, you’ll want to further subdivide pastures to move cattle more often,” he says. “Don’t overgraze.” 

If you normally graze a pasture for several days each rotation, then in a drought you should subdivide down to daily allocations while maintaining ideal residual height of forages, Aljoe adds. 

“Allow for adequate recovery periods, typically much longer in a drought,” he says. “Your goal is to get pastures to at least the fall, when you can anticipate some better rains.” 

Also, he adds, diversifying your pasture forage species will help you navigate droughts.

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