Where are we really at with drought?

Farm Forum

As an Extension Range and Pasture Specialist, most of my time has been spent dealing with the production side of the industry, especially grazing systems. When you talk grazing, most folks want to talk drought. They also want to talk about drought… and sometimes drought.

If you’ve been paying attention the picture for northeast South Dakota has a glimmer of hope. That hope still requires above average precipitation in order to build back adequate sub-soil moisture, but at least we’ve had some snow/rain to start the process. Precipitation at or below normal will still cause a moisture deficit, so we have to be careful. Our friends in the southwestern portion of the state may not fare so well without a serious change in precipitation patterns. But, these are just predictive models, and as I write this the snow outside my kitchen window is blowing… again. I don’t mind moving new snow, but I’m getting to know these old snowflakes pretty well because I’ve moved them about six times in the last few weeks.

I can’t stress enough the need to practice caution during spring turnout onto your native pastures. We went into the winter with some of the worst range conditions we’ve seen in a while, and recovery will not be immediate. Even with adequate moisture, there is a time lag in soil water profile recovery, and thus a time lag in plant recovery. I’ve been encouraging producers to identify a pasture that can be ‘sacrificed’ if necessary. Preferably a lower quality cool season grass pasture dominated by brome or blue grass where you can feed hay or silage in if necessary.

Nature can trick us. With this late snow, there is no doubt we’ll see some spring green up. But, if we have a dry spring, green can turn to brown fairly quickly. If we have a good wet spring, you will still need to give your native pastures a bit of time for those plants to put on leaves and roots. Don’t set your pasture back even further by immediately harvesting your growth. Take half / leave half should always be in the back of your mindÉ.even if the halves are smaller due to drought. Finally, if you can make the adjustments to allow some long-term rest on a portion of your pastures, that recovery time can be critical to long-term health. With the high pasture prices we are seeing, you may think you cannot afford to not utilize every inch of grass available. However, if you’ve spent a substantial amount of cash for pasture purchase or rent… think about protecting that asset. If you abuse it, you’ll end up paying for it again in the long run with lower productivity, higher cost of weed control, etc. If you are a pasture landlord, you should protect your asset (the grass), which may mean re-negotiating your leases so as to strike a fair balance with your renters. If you charge full priceÉ.you can bet your renter will feel pressure to take all the grass he or she can. Work together to make a fair plan.

Here at Extension, we are continuing to host the ‘Drought Mitigation on the Ranch’ webinar series in cooperation with the University of Nebraska and the Drought Mitigation Center. So far, we’ve had 2 excellent sessions that have emphasized the need for planning and setting dates for making crucial decisions in relation to herd management and feed supplies. We’ve also heard directly from ranchers who have successfully implemented drought plans.

The next three webinars are coming up the last Wednesdays of the month – on March 27, April 24, and May 29. They will be hosted at the regional centers at 10 am on those days. Please join us. Email me with questions at or call the Watertown office at 886-5140.