The sky went dark. It was 4:00 in the afternoon, but the sun was completely blocked. The wind howled, and for the next couple of hours, dust swirled so thick you could actually taste it. Soil that was in fields and pastures early that morning blew for miles around and ended up as a fine layer of brown dirt covering everything.
That’s how one weekend late in April concluded for me — with my first-ever dust storm. For those around the country who’ve experienced these awful storms before, I apologize for this is old hat to you. For those who’ve never been in a dust storm before, it was a dirty reminder of how crucial moisture is in the environment around us. For me, it was further proof that parts of this nation are once again being challenged by drought. For my husband and for farmers and ranchers across nearly half of the United States, mostly west of the Mississippi River, it should be a reminder of the volatility brought to us at the hands of Mother Nature and of the critical importance of risk management and preparedness on the ranch.
Weather patterns will change, rain will fall (and could fall in large amounts if the climatologists are accurate in predictions of the return of El Niño later this year) and green grass will grow again. Last fall, it was a surprise early-season blizzard that devastated ranches across South Dakota and the Northern Plains; today it is a drought that is expanding in size and scope across the western half of the country; tomorrow it may be a flood. Regardless of the situation, there is never a bad time to pull out your management plan and make sure you’re ready in case Mother Nature decides to strike.
A mentor of mine in college used to remind fellow students and me that “proper prior planning prevents poor performance.” Applying that phrase to managing a farm or ranch operation means now is the time to update personal ranch records with regard to precipitation totals, range conditions and the overall conditioning of cattle. Don’t wait for disaster; prepare today.
The National Drought Mitigation Center worked with partners at South Dakota State University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Texas A&M Kingville to develop a website (www.drought.unl.edu/ranchplan.com) focused on managing drought risk on a ranch. While centered on drought, the site dedicates an entire section to the importance of inventorying and monitoring natural, financial and people resources that could be applied to any type of disaster planning. Do you regularly inventory precipitation amounts and monitor short- and long-term precipitation forecasts? How about tracking residual forage, pasture plant variety and health, amount of water in stock ponds, and well water levels? When was the last time you updated your records related to stocking rates, and what date did you take cattle to summer pasture last year? What is your cash-flow situation? Are you sticking to your annual budget plan? What is happening in the livestock and feed markets in your region and around the country? These are topics of common discussion within the industry, but do your current management plans reflect the latest data?
The website provides tips, tools and resources to help farmers and ranchers utilize ranch management plans in the face of a natural disaster. Beyond the National Drought Mitigation Center, farmers and ranchers should also take time to familiarize themselves with requirements for federal disaster programs through USDA (www.disaster.fsa.usda.gov). They should visit with their agricultural lender, Extension specialists and insurance agents to make sure they will be prepared to respond to and recover from a natural disaster.
The long-term forecast from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates the drought could persist for much of the western half of the country through July, with improvement of conditions expected in the central/southern Great Plains and no drought conditions expected along and east of the Mississippi River. Weather will change, though, and in Kansas we like to say, “If you don’t like the weather right now, wait five minutes.” I hope that’s the case for parched lands from here to California. While we cannot control Mother Nature, cattle producers across the country have the ability to review their management plans to ensure they’re properly prepared for the future.
After all, a little proper prior planning could prevent poor performance in the face of a disaster in the future.
This editorial appeared in the May 2014 issue of Drovers/CattleNetwork.