Crazy Ideas

Out-of-the-Box Drought Management

As researchers talked to ranchers about how to manage drought, they found being proactive, and being willing to consider the unconventional, can pay off. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Chris Clayton)

Have you ever thought about buying a few Holstein milk cows to survive the next drought? It's an unusual drought-management strategy, but that's exactly what a Colorado beef producer did, and it worked.

"Going into the drought, the rancher was really proactive about implementing all sorts of adaptive management techniques and using all kinds of data to his benefit," said Hailey Wilmer, a researcher at the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Though planning paid off, she said, buying Holsteins helped the rancher avoid destocking his calves and paying the associated consequences down the road.

"It all started when he learned that a dairy farmer had sold a number of Holsteins at the local sale barn," Wilmer said. "He suddenly got this crazy idea, this spontaneous opportunity."

The rancher purchased the milk cows, sold his beef cows three weeks after they calved, then put those calves four deep on the Holsteins to nurse. Wilmer said this allowed the rancher to reduce the part of his herd that put the most demand on grass, and it also meant he had a sizeable number of replacement heifers.

Though a unique strategy, this shows that planning, adaptive management and a little out-of-the-box thinking can help ranchers better endure drought, both financially and psychologically.

Wilmer, along with Elisabeth York, Windy Kelley and Mark Brunson, interviewed ranchers in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah about their experiences with drought in hopes their stories will help others. Several ranchers talked about waiting too long to destock. When they were finally forced to sell, prices were abnormally low because supply greatly exceeded demand, and the land took longer to recover once adequate moisture returned.

Brunson, a professor in the department of environment and society at Utah State University, said ranchers talked about the danger of focusing too much on pounds of beef produced versus protecting soil and forage resources.

"One of our interviewees on the Southern Plains destocked very early during the last drought, and his land recovered a lot quicker because he implemented the plan he had in place," Brunson said. "He came out of the drought pretty well."

Producers in Georgia and Alabama who saw pastures dry up and turn brown during the 2016-17 "exceptional drought" were encouraged to take steps to protect both their cattle and what forage resources they had left at the time, recalled Richard Littleton, program assistant with University of Georgia (UGA) Extension. That emphasis continues going into 2018.

"If you haven't already done so, this is a good time to have your soil sampled to determine if any nutrients are needed to maintain the best stand of grass you can. The better the soil quality, the healthier the root systems, which will help sustain your plants during drier weather," Littleton said. UGA Extension also suggested having forage tested, whether grown on-farm or shipped in. The data will let you know if you need to supplement to maintain or improve the health of cattle.

Droughts tend to point out serious flaws on ill-prepared ranches; likewise, those who have developed and carried out sound plans have fared much better.

Those in the latter category, Littleton and the ranchers interviewed by the Wilmer-Brunson team explain, had implemented rotational grazing to improve forage quality and quantity, increased water sources to better distribute cattle and maintained larger hay stocks. Maintaining a good food bank—both in the field and stored—is a valuable tool to get through drought and other calamities, including blizzards and wildfire.

Despite rough weather in parts of the country, Littleton speaks with optimism: "I am proud that we have producers who are providing us with the quality of beef that our country is known for—and they are doing this in spite of drought conditions. They are learning how to keep on keeping on."