If you operate in one of the many areas suffering the effects of drought this year, you probably had to make some difficult decisions. You also might have noticed that the drought did not affect everyone equally, even in the same geographic area. One neighbor might be out of business while another, whose pastures received the same rainfall, endured just a minor financial setback. The difference relates to management, and effective drought management requires planning.

Climatologists generally agree that the earth's weather patterns are in transition. Trends suggest warmer, drier weather for much of North America, and whether or not you experienced a drought this year, you will in the future. Now is the time to prepare by adjusting management practices and developing a plan for the eventuality of drought.

Management begins with planning, and planning begins with monitoring, says range management consultant Charlie Orchard, Land EKG, Bozeman, Mont. Before ranchers can make objective decisions based, for example, on current rainfall totals or soil moisture, they need a historical perspective.

Mr. Orchard recommends several steps ranchers can take to prepare for and respond to drought.

  • Keep an accurate record of the amounts and date of moisture events and total them for each month. A thin layer of vegetable oil can help limit evaporation from the rain gauge.
  • Develop a 12-month running total of precipitation. Some producers have enough historical data to predict Animal Days (ADs) or Animal Unit Months (AUMs) per inch of rainfall. This can be a powerful tool for planning.
  • Keep records relating to the effectiveness of precipitation. Three inches of rain over a three-hour period do not contribute as much moisture to the root zone as 3 inches spread over two days. Light rains can add to the total, but are not effective in contributing moisture.
  • Monitor your land. Factors such as soil-surface crusting and litter incorporation provide feedback regarding your pastures' ability to effectively cycle water and nutrients.

Manage for moisture

  • Develop a grazing plan to optimize plant growth and water retention
  • Keep the grazing periods in each pasture as short as possible. General rules of thumb are less than a week during the spring, less than 10 to 14 days in summer, and less than a month in the fall.
  • Manage for soil cover and organic matter. Try to leave half or more of each year's residual aftermath at the end of the season.
  • Try to allow each pasture to rest for at least half of the growing season.
  • Try to avoid grazing the same pastures at the same time each year.

Develop a drought plan
A good strategy is to develop a "critical rain date," by which your pastures need a determined amount of moisture to support herd numbers. Each ranch's particular location, climate and management practices determine the amount of rain needed and the critical date. Lack of critical moisture by this date triggers the operation's drought plan. In dry years such as 2000, some managers used monitoring and grazing plans to predict forage shortfalls and were able to engage contingency plans months before many producers became alarmed. They secured additional pasture or de-stocked their ranches while prices were high, rather than taking "fire-sale" prices" during the peak of the drought.

The examples in this story highlight three ranchers from parts of the country affected by drought this year. Each has used planning, monitoring and management methods that help them make objective decisions and minimize the economic impact of drought.