Determining when drought will occur is a high-risk gamble, but cattle producers can improve their odds by being prepared.
At the Daybreak Ranch near Highmore, S.D., drought occurs almost yearly. Owner-operator Jim Faulstich says he doesn’t know when a drought will start, how long it will be or the severity, but he will be ready for it.
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s Drought Monitor, Daybreak Ranch went through drought starting in mid-July 2012 and ending late-May 2013. This past year the ranch experienced abnormally dry conditions from late-July through December. Despite the poor moisture conditions, Faulstich was prepared thanks to a drought plan he has in place to manage forage resources.
The Daybreak Ranch’s drought plan contains critical dates and trigger dates. Critical dates are used to gauge forage growth, while trigger dates are when a particular action will have to occur because of severe drought.
June 1, the year before a drought, is the first critical date because it gives plenty of time to prepare in advance. The next critical date is Nov. 1 the year before, which gives him a better idea of the available forage and moisture going into winter. May 1 is the next critical date because cool-season grasses are predominant on the ranch and April is a key moisture month.
The year of a drought, June 1 becomes a critical date and a trigger date. If there has not been ample moisture in the past year, cattle might have to start leaving the ranch.
Faulstich separates cows that are older, harder keepers or have poor dispositions into a separate herd in case cows need to be culled quickly during drought. The cull cows are kept with the yearling bred heifers and can be sorted off easily.
“I realize it is nice to have all the cows in one group, but that is just until you need to pull the trigger on something, and then you’ll wish they weren’t all together,” Faulstich says.
The next critical date is Aug. 1 to further evaluate, followed by Nov. 1.
A set goal is to have a year’s worth of forage on the Daybreak Ranch at all times or the capability to raise it. This includes forage sources such as stored feed, standing stockpiles of hay or enough soil moisture so you know approximately how much grass will be available to start the grazing season.
In August, during the middle of this past year’s drought, Faulstich had about 18 months’ worth of forage. Three hay sheds on the Daybreak Ranch were stocked full.
A half-mile from the Daybreak Ranch headquarters is a weather station established through the South Dakota Grassland Coalition and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). It tracks weather events such as precipitation, temperature changes, wind and humidity. The unit does not have soil moisture blocks, but similar weather stations in South Dakota do.
Information is sent from the weather station via satellite to the NRCS computer database every 15 minutes. Data recorded at Faulstich’s weather station is also recorded into the South Dakota NRCS Drought Tool, which he uses as well.
“At any time we can plug into our information, rather than using information from 50 miles away. There can be quite a bit of variation just 5 miles away,” Faulstich says.
Having the data pulled directly from the Daybreak Ranch helps him make accurate management decisions. Drought can be a positive, Faulstich adds. There could be opportunities to cull old genetics from the herd or possibly purchase younger females from a neighbor who didn’t plan ahead. A drought might lead to more diversity within the operation.
“As we’ve changed our operation and made natural resources a priority, we’ve all of a sudden had an increase in wildlife,” Faulstich says.
Now, additional revenue sources from hunting are included in the ranch’s drought plan. White-tail deer bow hunts and traditional pheasant hunts help bring in cash flow during the fall and winter months.
“A majority of operations have diversification opportunities, and they don’t even have to be wildlife or recreation oriented,” Faulstich says.
Heifer development, custom grazing yearlings, backgrounding calves or calving out cows are a few on-farm ways to diversify a cow-calf operation. Part-time on-farm employment is also an option during financially difficult times like a drought.
“What does that have to do with drought? Survival and flexibility,” Faulstich says.
During productive years, Daybreak Ranch takes in custom grazed yearlings with a contract that allows cattle to leave the ranch with as little as two weeks’ notice.
“That’s our flexibility. We never know how much rain we will get,” Faulstich says. There have been some years no cattle were custom grazed because of drought.
Every cattle operation should have a drought plan, Faulstich says, and each plan will differ based on the operation’s needs and resources.
“You need to think about your natural resources, financial situation, climatic situation and a whole host of other things—and plan, plan, plan,” Faulstich says.
Note: This story appears in the February 2017 issue of Drovers.