Protect Your Ranch From Drought: Part 6: Drought Plans Make Decisions Easier, Reduce Stress
“The more rest you give a plant, the more its root system develops and the greater its resilience when grazed or in drought conditions,” says Meadow, breeder of SD Dan Anderson. “It will straighten up faster and grow more plants above ground because you’ve managed to get a deep root system.”
About 20 years after beginning their experience as second-generation ranchers at Darling Creek Ranch, the Anderson family attended Ranching For Profit School. Then they built their first drought plan, increased paddocks and water with the Great Plains and EQIP programs and haven’t looked back. “We noticed a huge change in the amount of grass we were producing just by giving the paddocks 12 to 14 months off focusing on the soil,” he says.
Anderson has now been in intensive rotational grazing for 30 years, with the third generation now stepping in. He achieved goals never thought possible given his early days of grazing throughout the season and feeding hay from Thanksgiving through May. “By leaving each paddock with adequate standing forage (1,200 to 1,500 lbs/acre), we strengthen and nourish the soil to improve organic matter and water infiltration. Over time, we have doubled the number of heads of cattle on the same land, and we graze all year round,” he adds.
Plan for drought
A drought plan is an essential part of Anderson’s pasture management plan. Their goal is to protect the earth’s resources (soil and grass) and keep the core of the cow herd intact. They have implemented the drought plan three times (2004, 2012 and 2021), and their post-drought recovery is getting faster with each subsequent drought, thanks to rangeland health.
Anderson will implement trigger dates as needed, according to the NRCS Drought Tool, especially if a drought persists into a second season. “We are implementing the trigger dates of our plan to sell livestock in the winter; the flexible one-year-old grass herd goes first, then we’ll move other animals [sheep or cattle] in April. The plan helps avoid being stuck in decisions, which greatly reduces stress and leads to better decisions,” he says.
Judge Jessop, executive director of the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition (SDGC) and rancher near Presho, has watched and learned from countless ranchers during pasture schools, on video, from SDGC board members and in attending other events. “The important thing with the Coalition is that we encourage the adoption of a holistic approach, from the management of resources to the financial aspects including the social aspects of the family,” he says.
Planning to reduce drought
Longtime NRCS conservationist Mitch Faulkner of Belle Fourche has dealt with droughts on ranches in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota. “Drought is always a crisis, so the more long-term strategic planning that happens, the better the herders can almost weather the drought themselves,” he says.
Faulkner, who has helped many ranchers improve and upgrade their range and grazing strategies through NRCS, is a strong believer in implementing the 3Rs philosophy (Rest, Turn, Recover) is building a healthy, resilient and profitable ranch. “Herders who have reliable water sources and a rotation of multiple pastures with appropriate stocking rates and recovery periods can maintain a grazing plan even in drought conditions,” he says.
part of it drought planning beyond trigger dates includes access to supplemental forage or cropland grazing and strategic herd reduction or less personalized feeding as needed. “A drought plan is an exit plan because you take the emotion out of the decision,” says Jessop. “Today we have adequate humidity, but the forecast doesn’t look good, which will impact grass growth next year. It’s not a crystal ball, but a plan and plans can change.
Overgrazing penalizes the future
Faulkner helps ranchers use the NRCS Drought Tool to calculate current and potential grass inventory at the start of the growing season to determine if part of a flexible herd should stay or go. “In some cases, herders can make their drought conditions worse by overgrazing. Then they will pay the penalty for years as the grassland becomes less resilient and plant vigor slowly recovers.
Droughts are part of South Dakota’s natural cycle. Thus, some breeders incorporate a naturally conservative stocking rate. “When we ask them why, they tell us that these rates help pastures better withstand a dry year. They don’t have to worry about drought management as much,” says Faulkner. “This strategy is beneficial because a faster and stronger post-drought recovery can mean more income by adding yearlings or custom grazing during good times.”
Hydraulic infrastructures are essential
As Faulkner works with ranchers to create pasture and drought plans, he finds that having reliable, well-distributed water helps producers the most. “Management is what makes a ranch more drought resistant, but locations and livestock water reliability are the drivers of a successful plan. And it’s very satisfying when farmers tell me that these efforts reduce the severity of the drought,” he adds.
For example, even in a small rotation of four or five pastures, Faulkner helps ranchers develop plans to minimize pasture-by-pasture periods and, where possible, maximize pasture recovery periods. “By placing reliable water on the landscape where it can accommodate a good grazing rotation, you can implement grazing management that will benefit the grass resource,” he says.
Jessop encourages all ranchers interested in developing a more drought-tolerant ranch to reach out. South Dakota is fortunate to have many groups and the Grasslands Coalition working together to help ranchers improve grasslands. “Twenty years ago, when we started our pasture school, we talked about helping ranchers implement a four-pasture system,” he says. “Now we have ranchers who are strategically improving soil health and resting grass paddocks for 12 months while reducing the severity of drought. And we have more pasture walks, events and videos that show how breeders accomplish their improvements.”
For more inspiration on protecting your ranch from drought, check out “Cultivating resilience through our soils» (www.croissanceresiliencesd.com) and «Pray for rain, plan for drought” (https://sddroughtplan.org). South Dakota offers an innovative look at ranchers across the state who outline their improvement journeys in the NRCS-South Dakota video series’Our incredible meadows.’ Additionally, the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition has compiled a list of mentor breeders by subject. And the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition has a list of farmer and herder mentors.
This feature is the final installment in a six-part series of articles showing how more ranchers have moved from all-season grazing in a few pastures to a more adaptive and productive grazing system. Understanding the stages of their journey, along with recommendations from grassland specialists, can put you on the path to less stressful and more profitable farming.
Previous stories can be found here:
Part 1: Find your soil health mindset to reduce drought
Part 2: Building pasture health by mastering rest and recovery
Part 3: Managing for plant, animal and ranch diversity
Part 4: Discover the benefits of year-round grazing
Part 5: Mentor Ranchers and Range Events Improve Adaptive Grazing