Natural resources: The ranch foundation during drought

Farm Forum

BROOKINGS — A ranch’s current and future success largely depends on its natural resources.

As many South Dakota ranches deal with the reality of persistant drought, Sean Kelly, SDSU Extension range management field specialist encourages landowners to prioritize those natural resources as they make management decisions.

“Drought forces ranchers to make many critical decisions,” Kelly said. “The natural resources are the foundation for all other perspectives of a ranch.”

Kelly explained that natural resources, to a large extent, also set the boundaries for each of the other perspectives on a ranch; which may include: production, financial, customers and quality of life.

“The natural resources determine the number of cattle that can be stocked or the number of wildlife that can be sustained, as well as the amount of forage crops or hay that can be produce,” he said. “Striving to maintain the rangeland resources in the best condition as possible through a drought will be crucial for a fast recovery when conditions improve.”

Since nearly all the forage growth for this year has occurred – in the Northern Plains, 75 to 90 percent of vegetation growth is complete by July 1 – Kelly said a ranch manager must try to maintain some vegetation cover on the soil surface to help aid in restoring soil moisture as quickly as possible when rain returns.

“Leaving adequate vegetation cover in the pasture will increase the water holding capacity and infiltration rate into the soil profile and reduce runoff from heavy precipitation events,” he said.

Consequently, Kelly further explained that the soil moisture will be restored more quickly versus a pasture grazed to bare ground.

“Ranch managers should strive for at least 50 to 60 percent organic material cover on the soil surface and at least 4 to 6 inch residual stubble height for native grasses,” he said.

“A ranch manager must be flexible and adapt to resources conditions during a drought,” Kelly said. “Rangeland health and drought plans are priorities; a ranch manager must try and make other perspectives of a ranch adapt if the ranch’s vision includes long-term sustainability and profitability.”

Kelly references a quote stated by Wayne T Hamilton paraphrasing Dr. E.J. Dyksterhuis quoted in 1951 as saying: “The man who has a short pasture needs a rain much worse than his neighbor who has ample forage on the range. But, when the rains come, it will do the least good for the fellow who needs it most.”