Drought planning: why landowners need contingencies in place this spring

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

Landowners in the High Plains are well-aware of the ongoing drought.

Land that can't retain moisture will have a harder time growing anything - whether it's row crops, perennial grasses for grazing cattle or generic greenery for recreation - and that means lower profits.

To that end, rangeland experts say forming a drought mitigation plan, even in the middle of a dry spell, is essential for protecting the land and reducing the financial risks that come with droughts.

While drought conditions have eased in parts of eastern South Dakota, they persist west of the Missouri River, with much of it still in severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Tanse Herrmann, a soil health specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in South Dakota, is one of a group of experienced producers who work with farmers and ranchers to develop disaster contingencies. He said land managers should implement "trigger dates," or days when critical decisions are made to protect their grasslands.

How do I plan for drought?

Mitigation strategies can include early culling and weaning of calves, purchasing alternative feeds and moving livestock to a non-drought location to feed, according to South Dakota State University Extension.

Figure 1. Critical/trigger dates for monitoring resources in cool season versus warm season pastures

"It’s important to have those dates and activities in place ahead of time because, all too often, we get bogged down," Herrmann said. "We get so busy with springtime activities … (then,) all of a sudden, if we haven’t been looking at our grazing plan, we may already be in crisis situation."

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor also shows Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming are all experiencing widespread drought, ranging in intensity from abnormally to exceptionally dry.

U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday, April 21, 2022. Data valid as of Tuesday, April 19, 2022.

For South Dakota, the latest report shows extreme drought in Bon Homme, Brule, Charles Mix, Douglas, Gregory, Lyman and Tripp counties.

But no matter where farmers and ranchers live, Herrmann said it is better to be proactive, rather than reactive, when it comes to planning for drought.

"Why not plan for a contingency? Because it will come," he said. "We know that, in agriculture, the weather is never the same from one year to the next."

Herrmann, who hosts "Straight Talk," a video series focused on drought planning, said some producers gambled on rainfall early in the drought, which forced them to eventually de-stock their herds in reaction to the dry conditions. He said they still took a net loss.

"It feels as though, based on the livestock numbers going through early spring and late fall … (selling early) wasn't enough to overcome lacking rainfall," Hermann said.

Bart Carmichael, a rancher from Faith, said he had to follow through with his drought plan last fall after his ranch saw a 33% reduction in grass production. He sent his herd to graze in northeastern South Dakota, which incurred a cost to haul the cattle, but allowed his pastures time to replenish.

Bart Carmichael of Faith

"We’re a feed stock producer, so (drought) affects us greatly, but the cows are secondary. We look at the cows as the resource, but the cows are expendable at the good of the (grass)," Carmichael said.

Part of why landowners may not be willing to make adjustments to their plans is because the drought might have already forced them to make multiple short-term decisions just to survive, State Climatologist Laura Edwards said.

"Those decisions get much more difficult because you’ve probably already had to move some cows to feed or you’ve already had to sell some animals or you’ve already had to haul in some water,” she said.

Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension State Climatologist

Edwards added that some producers who decide to overgraze, or keep livestock on pasture land for extended periods of time, can compromise the vegetation in the long-term.

"If you hit those pastures really hard, especially a couple years in a row, it's really hard for that land to rebound and come back and be really productive," Edwards said.

Herrmann added producers in drought-free areas should consider making a drought and disaster plan while the weather is favorable.

"Our plea or urging to ranchers through the state is to become more tuned to where forage is concerned in addition to hay round and stockpile feeds," Herrmann said.

More information can be found on the Pray for Rain. Plan for Drought. and South Dakota Grassland Coalition websites.