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This Year’s Drought Outlook and What to Do About It

The US Weather Service has issued its drought prediction for the next 90 days and for some of us the news is not good. In fact, for some of us, the news is even worse than last year when Kathy and I shared this information with you. So here, updated from April of 2020 is a look at our vegetation and soils and what the outlook is for the next 6 months, along with some ideas for what we can do about it.

Drought Outlook

Here’s the outlook for 2021. The brown in this map shows where drought persists, and the yellow shows drought developing. You can compare it with the 2020 map below this one to see how life is changing for some of us as drought expands in the U.S.

April 2021 Outlook

April 2020 Outlook

Vegetation Stress Levels

Vegetation that is still showing some drought stress from past years. Drought stress means our forage is still recovering and may not be as productive. In this map white is near normal, the green shows good moisture levels, and the yellow to red show drought stress. When we compare the April 2021 map with the April 2020 map below it, we can drought is increasing plant stress over time.

The United States Drought Monitor updates these maps every two weeks. You can find updated maps here.

Soil Moisture Levels

We didn’t provide this map last year, but here it is for 2021, showing that soil moisture levels are significantly drier than normal in may places in the U.S.

How Warm Will it Be?

Like last year, we’re also looking at some pretty hot temperatures everywhere in the United States. White represents normal temperatures. The potential for hotter than normal temperatures increases as the color moves from yellow to red. It looks like this year has the potential for being even warmer than last year. Watching trends like this helps us plan ahead a little better.

April 2021 forecast

April 2020 forecast


Will It Rain?

In these maps, the darker the green, the higher probability of precipitation. The darker the tan or brown, the higher the probability that you’ll be praying for rain. In 2020, some of those hot temperatures were balanced out by higher than normal precipitation for some of us. But that doesn’t look as likely this year.

April 2021 forecast

April 2020 forecast

Why am I telling you all of this?
To encourage you to Perceive, Plan and Act.

According to “Deep Survival” those are the steps that separate people who survive disasters and those that perish. I shared those steps as part of an article I wrote in late 2018 regarding our responses to drought, and the federal strategy of sending ranchers cash to help them get through it. My point then was that because drought is a naturally occurring, and in fact recurring phenomenon, slathering a bit of free money on the pain of drought was a very poor strategy, as it would not change any behavior or management and therefore would not prepare American ranchers for the next drought.

Well, guess what? The next drought appears to be here for many of us. And sending money is still a bad idea.

Question: Since we never know for sure when drought is coming, what should we be doing to prepare and respond?

Here are my same old, tired, but useful ideas. (For even more detail, read Dallas Mount’s article this week. He’s got some excellent instructions for us all.)

Change our way of thinking.

Accept that drought is a natural and inevitable part of the management puzzle for people in the land and livestock business. Take steps to improve the resilience of your pastures by stocking them properly and grazing them to leave leaves and residue. That helps protect the soil from high temperatures so that it can hold more moisture so your pastures stay healthier even when it’s dry. Then give your pastures plenty of rest before coming back to them so that they can fully recover. Consider other forages for your herd, like the sorghum sudan grass, pearl millet, and honey locust that Chad Fisher wrote about in this article.

Develop a Drought Plan with trigger dates and defined actions.

You probably have a good idea of what your pastures should look like at particular times of the year. Write those dates down. They are the dates that will trigger actions. Those actions could include destocking, moving animals to another location, etc. Having a plan before anything happens ensures better decisions in times of stress.

Pledge to follow your Drought Plan. Act early and aggressively.

Reach the logical conclusion that reducing your stocking rate is by far the most significant step you can take to reduce the effect of drought.

Finally, try to imagine a management system that depends upon your capability to make good, solid management decisions rather than receiving relief checks.

Happy Grazing!



Ready to write your drought plan?

Here’s an On Pasture ebook – Drought Planning 101, your guide to planning for resilience. From our community comes Dave Pratt of Ranch Management Consultants who starts us off with the steps for success. We add to the details with destocking and leasing tips. Then farmers and ranchers from all parts of the country provide examples of how they managed and adapted. Greg Judy brings it all together showing how he grazed through two years of drought. We hope this helps you become a drought-proof, resilient grazier.

This bonus content is a service to our paid subscribers to thank them for being part of the On Pasture community. If you haven’t had a chance to subscribe, just head over here. Or click here to get your download link.

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

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