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Minimize the Effects of Drought

A few weeks ago, Troy Bishopp shared how lessons learned from the 2012 drought taught him to be better prepared when the 2016 drought hit. Here are ways that you can be as successful as Troy.

How do you minimize the effects of drought? Start with a plan.

Drought effects on pasture forages can be severe, not only within periods of drought but for years following. It is critical that you prepare your farm for the next drought well before it occurs. And while you will never be able to fully avoid the effects of drought, you can minimize their severity by making a management plan.

Click to download this helpful handbook. Though it’s specific to Nebraska and South Dakota, the principles work well everywhere.

The effects of drought are complex and dynamic and Nebraska Cooperative Extension’s publication Drought Management on Range and Pastureland (EC 91-123) does a nice job of describing these effects in detail. Below we have pulled out some of the highlights from this publication, providing thoughts on three critical periods in which your business can respond to drought: before the drought occurs, during a drought, and in the years that follow.


In addition to limiting the productivity of your pasture’s forage, a severe drought can also put stress on your financial position, your business relationships, and your family life. So how do you prepare for something that has the potential to be so devastating? By collecting data, keeping good records, and constantly analyzing your position. Not only do you need to know details about your pastures, you also need to assess where you stand financially and personally.

• What is your current financial position, including financial assets and obligations?
• What are your short- and long-term family needs?
• What are your family goals?
• How secure is your relationship with the banker?
• Are you prepared to accept the additional stress of added risk?
• How soon must losses incurred during and following drought be recovered?
• Would you rather risk the loss of the ranch and/or breeding herd than sell out?

During drought

During drought your goal is to protect your natural resource from degradation by overgrazing while still accounting for your business’ and family’s financial needs. Have you considered early weaning, destocking, relocation, or slowing down or speeding up your rotation? Do you have access to other forages that you can store for extended periods of time without excessive spoilage? Have you considered using other water resources, such as dams, rivers, wells and pipelines, to ease the severity of a drought?

Whatever decision you make, be sure that decision is based on one or more quantifiable triggers. Be it regional precipitation patterns or daily temperature extremes at a given location, using these measurable triggers removes our reliance on gut feelings. Using these triggers works even better if they are supported by good, on-farm records. Being proactive and keeping records at the site level will help make drought time decisions that much easier in the future.

The year following

After a drought occurs, your number one goal is to rebuild a healthy pasture resource. This means not only considering the financial needs of the first year after drought but also considering the productivity of your land for years to come. The following ideas can be effective at guiding your pasture out of drought.

• Resist the temptation to restock to former levels in the year following drought.
• Plan to delay the initiation of the summer grazing season by 1 to 2 weeks to enhance plant recovery.
• Use rangeland resources efficiently.
• Determine the availability of alternative or reserve forages.
• Reserve 10 to 20 percent of your forage resources in case vegetation recovery falls short of expectations.  Calculate stocking rates for each pasture.
• Make and implement decisions early to avoid crises.

By planning ahead, you’ll be able to make your way through a drought and come out better for it in the end.

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Tom Gervais
Tom Gervais
Tom Gervais has been a Grazing Specialist with the USDA-NRCS since 2008. Tom is also a Certified Forage and Grassland Professional. He enjoys working one on one with farmers and ranchers to improve the productivity of their grazing lands. Tom lives, works and farms in Northeastern MN.

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