Is drought-proofing a ranch possible? For more than 18 years, south-central Kansas rancher Ted Alexander has successfully monitored for drought to make beef stocking and grazing decisions, especially during dry cycles. He looks at soil-moisture levels, weather forecasts and records, available forage, projected forage growth and more.
“We’re either coming into or going out of a drought cycle here,” says Alexander, who, with his son Brian, manages 2,200 yearlings and 230 cow-calf pairs per year in a custom grazing operation near Sun City.
Dwayne Rice, Natural Resources Conservation Service range management specialist, lent him a hand. “He helped me identify critical information and dates I needed to assess my moisture and forage throughout the year. The process has been key in helping me manage the ranch,” Alexander says.
His ranch’s average annual precipitation is 21” – about 75% occurring between Nov. 1 and June 15.
“I start checking on things the first of April when winter is at an end and warm-season grasses begin growing,” he says. “I have a program that downloads weather information to my computer. When I review rainfall records, if I see we had less than 4” of precipitation between Nov. 1 and April 1, I won’t do prescribed burns – unless I have a very compelling reason to.”
If rainfall is low by June 1, Alexander rests paddocks as long as possible; grazing periods are also extended. By June 15, he has about half his forage for the season. If there has been less than 80% of average rainfall by that point, he reduces stocking rate accordingly.
“By Aug. 15, I look at July and August rainfall to determine when to end my grazing season. Typically, about 90% of my forage has been produced by mid-August. By then, warm-season grasses are preparing for next year’s growing season. Rest for those grasses between mid-August and the first frost will benefit next year’s grass production. If July and August rainfall is less than 70% of the average 5”, the grazing season has to end by Sept. 1.”
By Nov. 1, if Alexander’s pastures have received less than 80% of his annual precipitation, he knows he’s probably entering a drought period for the next growing season. An exceptionally wet winter means the drought may be short-lived or very mild, and he can readjust his spring stocking and grazing plans.
Ranchers can prepare for drought well ahead of the event to minimize its impact on land and finances, Rice says.
“It’s critical for ranchers to understand their areas’ drought risks,” he adds. “They should be well aware of how often a drought occurs in their region, how long the drought typically lasts and what constitutes a drought for their operations.
“Northwestern Georgia producers incur a drought when they don’t receive measurable precipitation over a six-week period because soils in that area can’t hold much available moisture and producers there rely on tall fescue as a staple forage crop. Southwestern Kansas ranchers expect and should plan for a three- to four-year drought about every 10-15 years.”
Producers should develop a baseline of how productive, healthy and drought-resistant their operations are and then develop a prioritized drought-proofing plan, Rice says.
“That reduces emotional stress. Know what’s average and above- or below-average forage growth in different moisture cycles. Write it all down. Be committed to making wise and timely economic and ecologic decisions. Everyone’s a good manager when it’s raining. A drought often separates good ranchers from the rest.”