Rangeland Drought Strategies
Plant Management-Rangeland Drought Strategies
|To relieve drought pressure, California rancher Steve Sinton adjusts stocking rates to improve rather than overpower his pasture. |
Photo by Jim Schoettler
Too often, droughts grip the West, bringing misery to producers. Ranchers who perpetually manage their pasture, rather than reacting to drought with emergency measures, stand a better chance at staying viable through periods of little to no precipitation.
British Columbia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Lands recommends matching herd size and breeds to the feed and water available on the ranch. Consider moving livestock to rented pasture or weaning early, which may help condition cattle to less feed. Knowing your area’s average precipitation patterns and keeping an eye on rainfall patterns may help you stay ahead, as you can sell off part of your herd early before others flood the market and reduce prices for calves or beef.
Adding small ruminants such as goats and sheep to your cattle operation can deflect the effects of drought, since large and small ruminants have different forage requirements. Finally, when drought strikes, send your herd to graze drought-stricken crops to salvage their value. (However, monitor residues from drought-stressed crops for prussic acid and high nitrate levels.)
Ranchers, contending with record droughts in recent years, have adopted such strategies. Mark Frasier, who ranches with his father on 29,000 acres in eastern Colorado, works hard to maximize the scarce precipitation. After educating himself in Holistic Management®, Frasier initiated a system of herd management that moves his cattle among 125 paddocks, depending on the availability of water and feed. Native plants, Frasier says, are the only species he can count on consistently.
The Frasiers also focus on soil management, using the animals to break up crusted soil surfaces and monitoring range productivity. “Even during a drought, rain does fall, and it is imperative that the soil surface be prepared so that rainfall is effectively conserved,” Frasier said. Only once, during the most severe drought conditions, did the Frasiers sell off their stock.
Similarly, rancher Steve Sinton, who won American Farmland Trust’s 2005 national Steward of the Land Award, applies keen herd management to his 18,000-acre ranch in central California. After a drought in the 1970s wiped out his pastures, Sinton and his father, Jim, overhauled how the family runs cattle. Today, Steve Sinton monitors range conditions and stocks the pasture at herd densities that support, not overpower his forages. He also changed the ranch’s schedule, selling calves sooner – at the calf stage rather than yearling – if conditions so dictate.
“You have to graze at the right level,” he said. “Our philosophy is to leave enough grass so that if it doesn’t rain until February, the herd can make it.”