Drought Management

Finding Value in a Crisis

Hailey Wilmer, a researcher at the USDA-Northern Plains Climate Hub in Colorado, hopes to find ways to help those affected by drought better adapt to changing climates. (Photo by USDA-ARS)

For livestock producers staring at a U.S. Drought Monitor map, dark red and brown areas are an unpleasant reflection of their own dried, brittle pastures. If you raise cattle in one of those unlucky areas, is your drought-management plan working, or are your pocketbook and psyche taking a beating?

Answering these questions honestly is one of the take-home messages from an ongoing project studying effects of drought on ranch planning and management. A research team has been interviewing cow/calf operators, stockers and custom grazers in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah. They are finding producers fare better, financially and psychologically, if they have a weather-management plan in place and execute that plan when faced with drought.

"Some producers told us when things were going well, there was not a whole lot of incentive to make things better. If the things you are doing now are working well, people don't try to look for ways to buffer themselves against a crisis. Oftentimes, it takes a crisis like drought to shake us into change," said Mark Brunson, a professor in Utah State University's department of environment and society.

He noted: "Every rancher who has gone through drought knows that it's a significant problem, a stressful thing. But there are people who have used drought and other challenges to make changes that ultimately bettered their operations."

Brunson added times are changing. He said climate predictions point to a likelihood of more frequent and more severe droughts than Dad or Grandpa experienced. This makes it important producers have a proactive plan to deal with drought and not just fall back on strategies earlier generations used to cope.

Southern Blues.

For months in late 2016, a big chunk of Alabama and Georgia stuck out on the U.S. Drought Monitor map like a dark-red bleeding heart. It was a very challenging time for the region's cattle producers, especially in light of predictions the drought could continue well into 2017.

Richard Littleton, University of Georgia (UGA) Extension program assistant, said UGA and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System held meetings to help cattle producers survive the bad times. A workshop in Littleton's home county of Carroll, "Grazing Cattle in Drought Conditions," attracted a standing-room crowd of 100. UGA agricultural climatologist Pam Knox told attendees trends suggest temperatures across Georgia are likely to be above normal again in 2017, with more frequent drought.

Littleton noted: "I've lived in Georgia for 26 years, and I've never seen a drought this bad. Pastures remained brown all season, lake levels are way down and many ponds and creeks, even spring-fed creeks, have dried up."

Some producers fared better than others, in part, he said, thanks to planning and execution.

"It is sad to see pastures being eaten down to the ground, but unfortunately, that was even occurring during our 'normal' Georgia weather before the drought," Littleton said. "That kind of grazing won't sustain your operation whether you're in drought or not."

Proactive planners and managers know "grass grows grass," he added. "Think of your pastures as a large solar panel. If the grass has been grazed to the ground, your solar system isn't working. There is very little leaf left to photosynthesize."

Bruising Impacts.

Many ranchers in Georgia and Alabama destocked at year's end 2016. Those trying to maintain herd sizes were forced to purchase expensive hay from other states, Littleton reported.

Unfortunately, this scenario is playing out more and more each year somewhere across the country, and it can have bruising impacts.

Hailey Wilmer, a researcher at the USDA-Northern Plains Climate Hub, based in Fort Collins, Colorado, said drought can harm ranchers psychologically, not just financially.

"Folks we interviewed talked about hurting. When they began realizing that the weather was having a very negative impact on the vegetation, cattle and wildlife, it started affecting their moods. And the lessons learned can be ingrained in families for a long time," she explained.

Wilmer was a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University when she became involved in a long-term project with Brunson and others to visit with producers and their families about drought. The intent is to couple those interviews with science-based knowledge to help ranchers, farmers and other land managers better adapt to weather variability.

"There is a lot of research out there about the changing climate, and there are economic models on how to optimize management decisions," Wilmer explained. "But we felt there was one big gap, what are folks on the ground already doing? That's why we wanted to hear behind-the-steering-wheel stories from ranchers. Get in a truck with them and drive around to hear their perspectives."

Telltale Signs.

As a producer who has lived it, Wyoming's Todd Heward echoed the team's early findings when it came to how adversity impacts a farm and the farm family. A decade ago, drought-caused calamities convinced him it would take dramatic changes if he wanted to see his family's ranch succeed into the sixth generation.

"For us, that meant developing a plan, not just having something in the back of our minds," said Heward, whose family runs 300 cows and 600 sheep in the incredibly desolate, dry, wind-swept Shirley Basin, elevation 7,200 feet. "If you have a written plan in place, when it comes time to make those tough decisions, those decisions have already been made."

Brunson agreed, noting a well-thought-out plan and its subsequent execution will help build a ranch or farm during both good times and bad, whether the bad thing is a drought or something else.

While southeast Wyoming faced drought in 2016, it was minor compared to Georgia and Alabama, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map. But don't tell that to Heward, whose ranch has only gotten about 6 inches of precipitation annually since 2012—down from the norm of 7 to 9 inches.

"The last couple of summers, it has rained pretty well on some neighboring ranches, but not on our place," said Heward, whose family takes daily weather readings for the National Weather Service. "Last summer, I started noticing that I was being mentally affected. It would be raining in all directions, but not on our ranch. Yes, I started getting a little depressed and discouraged. 'What am I doing wrong? How much more can we take?' "

Though cattle producers across the Southeast, even those in drought-smacked Alabama and Georgia, received what Heward considers monsoonal rainfall amounts last year (20-plus inches), he extended heartfelt sympathy—because their circumstances, though starkly different, were still very much the same as his when it comes to precipitation. A 25% decline from normal is a loss no matter where a person farms.

The challenges underscored the importance of the drought-management plan Heward and his family began work on a decade ago.

"When we weaned and preg-checked last fall, weights of the calves and lambs, along with the pregnancy rates, were very good," he said. "To me, that's a telltale sign, a witness, that what we're doing is working."

Editors Note: This is the first of two stories looking at how cattle producers plan and manage around drought. Look for the next report to post April 4th.

For More Information:

• USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service drought resources, including the Drought Calculator: www.nrcs.usda.gov/drought

• University of Nebraska--Lincoln (UNL) drought resources: http://droughtresources.unl.edu/…

• UNL's Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch handbook: www.drought.unl.edu/ranchplan

• USDA Climate Hubs: https://www.climatehubs.oce.usda.gov/…

• Alabama Cooperative Extension System's drought website: www.aces.edu/drought

• Other drought resources can be found on Cornell University's Beef Cattle Management website: http://blogs.cornell.edu/…