Drought events are relatively common in the southeastern US where summer temperatures are high, evaporation rates are high, and precipitation is distributed unevenly across the year. Extreme droughts are difficult to deal with, but beef farm management can be tweaked and improved over time so that short-term drought events have less severe impacts on the operation and long-term farm survival. Let’s consider the three main interrelated and interacting components of a beef farm, pasture, animals, and the environment, and how we can manage each of it towards more drought resilience.
Pasture: From a simplified perspective, pastures are made up of soil and growing forage, and there are ways of increasing water use efficiency and soil water retention. The ground should always be covered, and with that we mean healthy forage stands and trying to close forage gaps throughout the year as much as possible. Plant cover means that erosion is slowed and water can infiltrate more evenly without running off. The more forage is produced, the more root growth takes place in the soil which in turn is beneficial for maintaining and increasing soil organic matter, soil stability, and providing substrate to soil microorganisms, all of which in turn improve soil health and water retention. Extending the grazing season into late fall and winter via stockpiled forages provide additional grazing days for livestock, thereby reducing costly hay purchases. Fall and winter forages such as cereals or turnips may also be able to scavenge part of the nitrogen that is cycled back into the soil from grazing earlier during the year. Grazing stockpiled forages, either warm- or cool-season species resulting in staggered grazing times, will increase the return of organic material to the soil that will also help in absorbing water during winter rain events. Grazing methods play a large role too, as it has been shown that more intensive methods such as rotational stocking can increase soil health by recycling a larger amount of biomass. It is also a good idea to experiment with summer annual forages to test which ones do best on your place. Pearl millet and sorghum-sudangrass are mainstays in Arkansas and have been good choices as these are warm-season forages which are more drought tolerant than perennial cool-season forages. They won’t survive without water obviously either, but if droughts should become more frequent in the future, producers have a tool at hand that allows them to replace traditional cool-season forages during certain times of the year. Observe precautions however regarding nitrate and prussic acid accumulation, however. Overgrazing of pastures should be strictly avoided as this will weaken pasture recovery and will give weeds an advantage. In addition, bare spots mean increasing soil temperatures which in turn will increase soil water evaporation.
Animals. Cattle need sufficient amounts of clean drinking water to get through the summer. During a prolonged drought heat stress is exacerbated and amounts of water delivered have to be vastly increased. To avoid any problems, plan carefully in advance on how to address water delivery to cattle. This involves providing various water access points with different water sources, such as a ponds, wells, or city line connections. It is unlikely that during a severe drought all of these will fail at the same time. Shade is an important component to animal management as it alleviates heat stress during the hottest parts of the day. There’s always the discussion that shade areas will develop into muddy areas and that grazing time will be reduced. During a prolonged drought which most of the time comes with high day-time temperatures, shade together with sufficient amounts of drinking water can be a lifesaver. Shade structures should be kept away from the water sources, however, so that the water sources don’t become impaired from defecation.
Environment. Many beef farms feature streams, creeks, or springs. It cannot be stressed enough that it is just not a good idea of letting animals roam freely around these waterways as these landscape features are associated with woody vegetation that keep the surroundings cool, reduce evaporation, and retain soil moisture. Water access to streams can be provided, but should be limited to certain areas with a low disturbance potential. Creeks in healthy riparian areas may carry water well into a prolonged drought and should thus be protected.
In summary, good grazing management, providing reliable water access points for the animals, and good stewardship of natural resources will go a long way towards being prepared for drought events.