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Drought Planning: Grassland Preservation

By Walt Davis

Drought planning and preparation should be a priority for most ranching operations, as ranches are likely to be located in areas of natural grassland and one of the formative factors for grasslands is erratic mois­ture availability. Drought is not just dry weather; drought occurs when there is a significant reduction in normal pre­cipitation. A desert area that received only 9 inches of rain is dry, but it is not in drought unless annual precipitation falls well below 9 inches; an area that is in a 40-inch rainfall belt and received 20 inches is in a serious drought.

Our home ranch in Nolan County, Texas, was in a 20-inch rainfall area that was very drought-prone; local wags said that the 20-inch average came about because it would rain 60 inches one year and then skip two years.

Where moisture availability is con­stant, the vegetation tends to be made up of longer-lived plants (trees). If drought kills most of the local vegetation, grass­es and forbs can germinate from seed and reproduce quickly, but trees require much more time to reach maturity. The fantastic ryegrass and clover pastures of England and Ireland did not come into being until the oak forests that were originally there disappeared into ship timbers and charcoal kilns. If humans were removed from these areas, the oak forests would return because of the uni­formity of the local moisture patterns.

The frequency and severity of droughts vary widely according to location; know­ing the probability of drought in the local environment is essential informa­tion for formulating drought planning management strategies. Equally important is recognizing the early signs of impending drought — the sooner drought is recognized, the more effectively its effects can be offset. If drought is recognized as a normal occur­rence, and it is, then plans can be made to reduce its impact upon the operation and upon the soil-plant-animal complex on which the operation depends.

Just as it is essential that biological capital be generated when times are good, it is crucial that a financial cushion be built up when conditions are normal.

The National Weather Service keeps detailed weather records for many places in the United States, and an examination of these records for your area is a good place to start in determining the likeli­hood of drought and need for drought planning. There is nothing you can do to keep drought from occurring, but you can do a great deal to reduce its impacts.

The effect of drought on grassland is in direct proportion to the health of the grassland; rule 1 in drought-prone areas should be to maintain the plants and soil in the healthiest possible state. This can be done by manipulating the eco­logical processes; when the vegetation in an area is composed mostly of healthy, deep-rooted, perennial forage plants, the soil has a high degree of biological ac­tivity, and the ground is covered with plant material both dead and alive, the ability of that area to withstand dry weather is high.

Conversely, if the forage sward consists of mostly annuals and overgrazed, short-lived, perennial plants growing on areas with a lot of bare soil, even a slight reduction in precipitation will be devastating to forage production. Build the health of your range, your bio­logical capital, when growing conditions are good so that you can survive the drought that is surely coming. It is much easier to maintain healthy grassland than it is to bring degraded grassland back to health; be ready to do whatever is necessary to keep from degrading your country.

Drought Planning: Financial & Mental Health

We are all familiar with the effects of drought on land and animals, but we seldom consider that it also has tre­mendous effects on two other areas: our financial health and our mental health. These two are closely related, but let’s look at financial health first. Just as it is essential that biological capital be generated when times are good, it is crucial that a financial cushion be built up when conditions are normal. If it is not possible to create a financial surplus and salt part of it away in a “not rainy day” fund, then the entire operation needs to be re-examined and replanned. If the operation is not profitable under normal conditions, it will certainly not be profitable when drought or other un­favorable conditions occur. This fund is not something that may be needed; it is something that will be needed.

Until this fund can accumulate enough to fulfill its purpose, an arrangement to have credit available when needed should be made; however, although having credit avail­able is necessary, a line of credit, which is a debt, does not take the place of a financial cushion, which is an income-producing asset. A west Texas rancher with years of experience told me long ago, “We all need a drought once in a while to make us cull the stock like we know we should and to force us to quit spending money based on ‘we want’ rather than on ‘we need.’”

A rather cynical note on droughts and government “help:” When drought does strike, the last thing most people need is donated feed or low cost loans to buy feed. What happens every time funds are made available for “drought relief” is that a lot of people beat the heck out of their country by turning it into a feedlot and wind up deeper in debt with a bunch of thin stock at the bottom of the market. One of the most economically damaging things that a rancher can do is to hold stock on land that can no longer feed it.

The expense of feed and lost animal production is bad, but the real cost is the damage to the land. Droughts have come and gone for eons without permanently damaging the land, because before fenc­es and stored feed and pumped water, when the land could no longer support grazing animals, the animals either left or died. If you have stock that you are determined to save, send them to where it is still raining or put them in a feedlot. Even when animals are being fed all they need and more, they will pick every green leaf as soon as it appears, reduce the groundcover, and do serious damage to both the soil and the vegetation sward.

One of the most debilitating of hu­man emotions is the feeling of help­lessness in the face of overwhelming adversity; Elmer Kelton in The Time It Never Rained (a great book on a sad subject) paints a vivid picture of the human and financial suffering caused by a major drought. Emotion of this intensity can and does cause people to make poor decisions, and it can bring about physical harm; stress is debilitat­ing to humans just like it is to livestock. A major drought is guaranteed to cause exactly this state of anxiety unless plans have been made to offset the effects of drought. Such plans must start well before the drought with the goal of building the health of the local environ­ment, biological capital, and financial health; the most useful tool for building biological capital is planned high stock density grazing.

Design, implement and continually update a formal grazing plan for each unit of the ranch; a part of these grazing plans should be time reserves for drought. These reserves should be in the form of higher residuals of forage left in each paddock after grazing; leaving extra leaf on the plants will speed recovery of the grazed areas and maintain reason­able quality of forage. If an area of for­age is set aside as drought reserve, both the quality and the growth rate of the forage set aside decreases dramatically when the plants reach maturity. The infrastructure needed for planned graz­ing, the fencing and water development, will also be invaluable in coping with drought.

Taking Action

Two things need to be done as soon as it is apparent that a drought has started: reduce the demand for forage, and (as growth rates of forage will be slower) increase the length of time the forage has to recover. The ability to determine whether a drought is imminent requires knowledge of the local weather patterns; the manager needs to know when pre­cipitation normally falls and when grass grows. If the rains do not come at the normal time or fall only sparsely, in most areas, some degree of drought is almost certain. If moisture is low or ineffective during the period of peak forage growth, it is past time to reduce forage demand.

Part of drought planning includes selecting a stocking mix that fits the lo­cal likelihood of drought; in areas where the probability of drought is high, some portion of the stocking rate should con­sist of animals that can be moved rapidly without incurring financial loss. Young, growing animals can nearly always be sold at a reasonable price, as they get on a truck and go to where it is still raining; breeding females, especially older fe­males and females with young offspring, sell at a discount in drought conditions. Making up a portion of the stocking rate with stocker animals, preferably home-raised, allows the manager to reduce animal numbers quickly with minimal financial pain.

cattle in dead pasture
The expense of feed and lost animal production is bad, but the real cost is the damage to the land.

In dry years, to lower forage demand, the calves are sold at weaning or shipped to grass; aside from being good drought strategy, carrying at least a portion of the calf crop over to be sold the following summer is a con­sistently profitable program for many ranchers. A calf at weaning has already incurred about 70 percent of the ex­pense required to produce a 700-pound yearling. This is because the weaned calf has to pay the cost of maintaining his mother for an entire year. The weight at weaning is expensive, but the gain from weaning to yearling weight can be made quite cheaply under the right program.

If cows are calving in the spring flush, this program also has the effect of loading up forage demand (cattle weight) when for­age is most abundant and reducing de­mand when forage is scarce. The calves should be wintered on the best available forage with only enough supplementa­tion to keep them healthy and growing normally; calves wintered in this man­ner will make quick and profitable gains in the spring flush. The temptation is always to plant some winter green stuff or to pour the feed to the calves to make them “do good;” resist.

Before the yearlings are shipped early, the manager should look through the pasture day book — the one that records in one place when what stock was moved into which paddock, how tall the grass was going in and how tall it was when the herd came out on which date and how much it rained and when it frosted and when 20/5 sluffed her calf and when the bulls went in and came out. Even all the other stuff that we used to try to remember or write down on the back of envelopes that blew out when we got to open the gate; the stuff we need to build and keep up to date, a “to-be-culled” list. I know that you will not forget that you saw 88/3 in standing heat on February 2 or that 16/5 prolapsed, having it down on paper will make certain that these cattle get on the truck if you are not around. This is also a time to consider downsizing the cows; if the need is to reduce forage demand, it might make sense to replace some of the older cows and the 1,400-pound cows with heifers that will be 1,000-pound cows when grown. Sometimes it takes a drought to jolt us into doing the right things.

There is another option, viable under the right conditions, if some high-quali­ty feed is available, it may be possible to wean calves early and lower the nutri­tional demand of the cows. Weaning her calf will reduce a cow’s need for energy by approximately 40 percent and her need for protein even more, and it will allow her to maintain herself on lower-quality forage; keep in mind that the calf will have to have access to a high-protein diet to replace his mother’s milk. Regardless of how the sell list is decided, when it is time to sell, pull the trigger!

In addition to reducing the total demand for forage, it is very important that provisions be made to give the forage plants that are growing slowly due to poor conditions more time to recover. A quick and simple way to accomplish this goal is to combine as many herds as is feasible into one herd; for example, if you have four herds each working through 25 paddocks, after combining all four herds, the new single herd will have 100 paddocks to work through. If all of the paddocks have been stocked conservatively, it is pos­sible that you can increase the recovery periods by a factor of three or four and still maintain short graze periods. If you have been using an average recovery pe­riod of 75 days during slow growth, you can now use recovery periods of 150 to 200 days. Using one-day graze periods with 100 paddocks and one herd, 1 percent of the area will be in grazing (assuming equally sized paddocks) at any point in time while 99 percent of the total area is resting.

Depending on topography and the amount of forage present, it may be worthwhile to use temporary fencing to reduce the size of large paddocks; this will likely work if these are paddocks large enough to require graze periods of five or six days. Long graze periods re­duce the efficiency of grazing and reduce animal performance, splitting up a large paddock can often increase the number of animal unit days of forage (AUDs) that the paddock can provide simply by reducing the amount of forage spoiled and refused by dunging.

It is usually not necessary to use a back fence when rationing out dormant forage. By increasing stock density the grazing efficiency (the percentage of the forage actually consumed by the animals) can be increased; this will increase the number of AUDs available and hopefully increase the likelihood of making it through to new grass. It is tempting to feed a little hay or other feed to “stretch the grass;” I have never seen this tactic work. What normally happens is that the animals catch the welfare syndrome and quit grazing to wait for the feed truck, and animal performance falls off.

A very little high-quality hay fed daily as a protein supple­ment can increase utilization of low-quality forage, but do not feed enough high-quality hay on any one day to be a significant part of the animals’ diet; if you do, you will risk rumen flora upset, similar to what happens when feeding grain to grazing animals. I would prefer to not feed any energy feed as long as grass is available; when the grass runs out, either move the animals or put them in a feedlot. As with any practice, watch animal performance and do what is required to keep it in the reasonable range — the operative word here is reasonable. Ruminants are adapted to fluctuating body conditions, but there are limits.

Drought Planning: Building Biological Capital

Drought forces us to make choices; sometimes the choice is between bad and worse, but planning can reduce the pain. Develop water in excess of what you expect to need; it hurts to have grass and not be able to use it because the tank is dry. Understand the difference be­tween feeding for supplementation and feeding for substitution; when you feed energy as hay, grain or whatever, you are substituting money for grass, and you are on shaky financial footing.

Remember that the real damage from drought comes from management that results in a loss of biological capital. On even very well run ranches, when a major drought finally ends, biological succession will have been pushed back­ward, and there will be open biological niches; nature will fill these niches with organisms that are capable of existing and reproducing in the new and harsher growing conditions. Expect a plague of weeds along with grasshoppers, army­worms, or whatever pest organisms are common to your area. These popula­tion explosions will come about because of the reduced amount of life in the drought-stricken area.

cattle in drought
If you have stock that you are determined to save, send them to where it is still raining or put them in a feedlot.

Be careful that your response to the situation doesn’t increase the prob­lem. Weeds are nature’s way to respond quickly to bare ground. If there is noth­ing growing but weeds and you kill the weeds, you still have no forage but you now have bare ground as well. Pest or­ganism explosions occur because of a lack of biodiversity. Be careful that your response doesn’t further reduce biodi­versity and make the problem worse.

Do not be in a hurry to re-establish the old number of herds. Keep your stocking density high after the drought breaks unless there are compelling rea­sons to not do so. High stock density is a powerful tool for improving mineral cycle, water cycle, and energy flow, thus moving biological succession forward. It is also the most effective tool to deal with the plagues of pest organisms, as it addresses the root cause of these plagues, which is low biological activity.

If you do not have a monitoring program in place, use the end of the drought as a starting point, and begin monitoring the health of your range. With good management, improvement will be rapid after good conditions re­turn, and this will offer an excellent opportunity to learn how the range heals itself, given the chance. Set up permanent photo points to record the changes, and begin a formal monitoring process that addresses the whole soil-plant-animal complex.

Our management determines the health of our grazing lands. If our practices promote healthy ecologi­cal processes (good water cycle, rapid mineral cycling, and strong energy flow) biological succession will ad­vance, and our ranges will become both more productive and more stable. Our management during drought is par­ticularly critical because the ecological processes are under stress, which mag­nifies the effects of management mis­takes. Natural grasslands are extremely stable due to their complexity and to the health (read high organic content) of their soils. These grasslands evolved in spite of drought over eons of time; when nature was managing the show, if drought became severe, the grazing animals either left or died. The drought eventually ended and the prairie came back just as it had hundreds of times before. Drought doesn’t destroy grass­land; our management during drought destroys grassland. If we are going to operate in drought-prone areas, we would be wise to study nature’s means of range management. Some of nature’s most valuable tools are keeping stock density high, matching the demands for forage to the production of forage (especially during drought), matching recovery time to growing conditions and never leaving animals on range that has lost its ability to produce the feed they need. Do these things in an economically feasible way and your operation will have a head start in the race for success.

This story was published in the June 2012 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. This article is excerpted from How to Not Go Broke Ranching by Walt Davis.