Grazing plans and drought plans are good for all

By Pete Bauman
SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist

The U.S. Drought Monitor was updated on Aug. 10, and to no surprise is still showing a vast area of central and western South Dakota in the severe drought category with smaller pockets of extreme drought while much of central and western North Dakota are in extreme and even exceptional drought.

Unlike most of my colleagues who are stationed in those regions, I’ve not had as many producers in my work area hit as hard by this year’s drought, although many have made adjustments while others have started to initiate drought-based decisions. Because of less urgency in comparison to others, I’ve not covered drought as much in my outreach efforts, although I’m fully aware and sympathetic to the challenges facing some of our neighbors to the west and north.

Generally, we should count our blessings in most of eastern South Dakota. While doing that, it got me thinking about what drives a producer to generally ignore the potential for drought in their base operating plan. Of course, the obvious answers are that most people are generally optimistic, have short memories, and like to focus on positive things. But, what if drought planning was positive? What if by drought planning a person realizes that dry periods are much more normal than we tend to remember, and that if acknowledged as a basic part of a business plan one can have more control over how, when, and where the negative effects of drought impact their operation. The key strategy here is to plan for drought when things are good and clear thinking can prevail. If you wait for drought to begin planning, you are already behind the curve and decisions may be more forced, emotional, or poorly executed than if planned well in advance.

I took a call from a lessee this morning who was having some issues with his landlord. While there were several key issues on the table, one of the most important was the request of the landlord to have a grazing plan in writing from the lessee. The lessee initially took some offense to this proposition, feeling somewhat insulted and untrusted. However, after we discussed the pros (many) and cons (few if any), he too realized the benefits of sharing his operating plan with his landlord…what better way to ensure your future relationship than to let the landlord know that you are protecting his or her asset. Kind of like the bible story where the landlord leaves several servants in charge of ‘talents’. The one who took care to improve upon what he was given was rewarded. Also, by doing so he has a defensible tool that is pre-approved…again taking the emotion out of future decisions and reducing potential conflict.

So goes grazing planning; and within grazing planning, drought planning specifically. Overall grazing planning should be treated like a business, with organizational goals, mission, and objectives clearly outlined. Also, it should include action steps and strategies that reflect those objectives. Part of the plan should include a well-defined lease structure (if renting) that is fluid and fair and that references a drought plan or simply includes key trigger dates/precipitation conditions related to drought. Many folks I’ve gotten feedback from prefer a lease structure that reflects the ‘selling’ of grass, rather than acres. These leases are generally written as a cost per head or pair per day, animal unit, or animal unit month. Such a structure allows for easy and fair calculations and settlements if livestock are partially or fully destocked due to drought or other circumstances.

The simple bottom line is that everything benefits from planning. When you’ve thought critically about which animals you will cull and when, why, and how you might maximize your marketing potential if drought hits, you will be better positioned to make informed decisions with a greater level of control. In addition, overall grazing planning can drastically reduce one’s exposure to drought or other emergencies because these things are now planned for, mitigated, and in large part avoided under an appropriate plan.

You can find more grazing and planning resources at the following. SDSU Extension at iGrow.org, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition at sdgrass.org, NRCS’s South Dakota pasture page, or from the National Drought Mitigation Center at drought.unl.edu.