Mike Rankin
One of the most memorable visions documented in the Bible is experienced by the prophet Ezekiel. Often referred to as the Valley of Dry Bones, the story has inspired many Sunday school lessons and sermons. The dry, desolate, bone-strewn valley represented Judah, which at the time had been ravaged by the Babylonians. Most of the Judeans were exiled to Babylon.

Even today, a land devoid of water is sickening to the human eye. It’s even worse if that landscape is generally afforded some level of precipitation and livestock or crop production is sustainable. We often refer to this malady as drought, and it conjures fear into the heart of every agriculturist.

Those people who study such things tell us that extreme weather occurrences such as drought have become more common. Unfortunately, current conditions and most forecasters are predicting widespread drought in the western half of the U.S. for at least the beginning of 2021 growing season and maybe longer.

I don’t know exactly how many articles I’ve read or webinars I’ve listened to in the past couple of years focused on drought planning, but it’s been a lot. That’s the thing about droughts . . . once you’re into one, it’s often too late to recover. For this reason, steps must be taken and strategies need to be formed to deal with any imminent dry conditions.

Of course, one dry year is bad enough, but if the next one is equally parched, that’s when supplemental feedstuffs get both scarce and expensive. Remember 2011 and 2012?

“In my mind, we already need to plan on reduced stocking (rates),” said Aaron Berger during a recent University of Nebraska webinar series on drought planning. The extension beef educator noted that plant root systems are already compromised because of last year’s dry conditions in the western part of his state.

Berger pointed out that early denial of a looming severe drought can direct livestock producers into a situation where options are limited and decisions become forced. Often, this puts them into a compromised position when the drought finally ends. For this reason, he and many others suggest setting up triggers to take action before a drought gets too severe. These time-driven triggers can be based on accumulated precipitation, available forage, and/or livestock performance.

The multitude of options available for dealing with drought are too numerous to discuss here, but there are a wide variety of informational resources available from state extension services and entities such as the Noble Research Institute to help. Often, it’s not a matter of what you do but rather of doing something.

Not just livestock

A lack of precipitation is just standard operating procedure for many in the arid West. These areas rely on irrigation to grow crops, including millions of acres of alfalfa and other forages. I’ve always found it interesting how much the availability of irrigation water varies from one location to another. Often, this phenomenon is a function of water source and irrigation district guidelines.

In much of California’s Central Valley, available irrigation water hinges largely on the accumulated snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This year, that snowpack is only 60% of normal, and farmers are currently looking at significantly reduced water allocations for the growing season. Just as with parched pastures and rangelands, alfalfa producers in California and other areas where irrigation water will be at a premium need a plan.

Extension Forage Specialist Dan Putnam, along with other colleagues at the University of California in Davis, have been busy evaluating irrigation strategies for alfalfa when water is limited. In a nutshell, they’ve found it is better to water early and often in the beginning of the growing season when alfalfa production potential is greatest. Water can be withheld later during the summer when production is lower and it’s more difficult to harvest a high-quality crop.

In all times, but especially for drought, it’s best to follow the sage advice of forefather Benjamin Franklin: “Success is the residue of planning.”

This article appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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