If you’re not facing drought, you’re likely facing higher prices for hay and maybe even reduced hay availability thanks to the rising cost of fertilizer. Either way, you’re looking at ways to make sure you have enough feed for your stock while maintaining soil health and good cover. That’s what a drought plan is all about. So check out these ideas from ranchers in South Dakota.
Keep Calm and Plan
Brett Nix is concerned, but far from panicked, even as the drought across most of South Dakota shows little evidence of going away any time soon. The Murdo rancher and his wife Lori are very short of moisture––their ranch in central South Dakota falls within the large swath of the state classified as severe drought.
His calm comes from what he learned as he dealt with drought ten years ago, in 2012, and the changes he’s made since. “We were in more of a panic mode then,” Nix said. “That’s when we got serious about setting up a grazing plan along with a drought plan. We don’t look at them as separate plans––they’re implemented together.”
Before they developed their grazing plan, Nix had different herds of cattle running a month to a month and a half on different pastures. “We tried to manage that to give the grasses time to rest and recover, but having cattle grazing on the whole ranch most of the time didn’t work the best,” Nix said.
Nix said just having a plan in writing reduces stress. “When you have a drought grazing plan and you have it written down with trigger dates, all you have to do is look at it and it gets your brain rolling—asking yourself what you need to do,” Nix said.
What Should Your Plan Include?
Different operations have different goals and needs. You can use these examples from seasoned South Dakota planners to think about what you’d like to do.
“Our motto would be ‘the earlier you start to de-stock, the more grass you’ll have left for the cows you want to keep most.”
Nix started de-stocking almost two years ago. His technique – reducing breeding days and letting the cows self-select for whether they belonged in the herd or not.
“We could see we were short on moisture going into the summer of 2020,” Nix says. “We left our bulls in for only 35 days with cows and 25 days with stockers. That generated sales from open cows and tightened up the calving season. So we sold about 20 percent of our cows in 2020. Last year open cows were first to go, then we sold steer stockers early on. We put bulls in for 30 days on our cows and 20 days on heifers––that generated another 100 head of open cows to sell.”
He also runs just one herd. “One of the most powerful things you can do on your ranch is to comingle your herds,” Nix said. “It changed everything for us when we grouped them all together. The impactful thing about having all your cattle eating in one spot is that the grass on all the rest of the ranch is resting and recovering.”
Grazing principles guide his rotations of cattle through pastures. “We don’t want to take a second bite from a plant after it has started to recover. That means our herd isn’t going to be on any piece of land for more than three to five days. We like to change season of use, too.”
His grazing management results in soils and grasses that are more resilient in dry weather, and ready to bounce back after a rain, Nix said, resulting in considerably more production. “I think a lot of ranchers focus on their cattle genetics and kind of put their soil and grass aside. That’s a real mistake that will get you into trouble real quick,” Nix said. “We can have grass without cattle, but we can’t have cattle without grass.”
After marketing the remaining steers in late March of this year, Nix is down to the nucleus of his cow herd, which represents about 50 percent of his normal stocking rate. “We have a lot of regrowth left in our pastures from last fall, and the old grass caught all the little bit of snow we got over the winter. So, we’re hopeful we can get through this year if we get any kind of moisture. If we get no moisture from here on, we’ll start taking off some of our older cows.”
The first year of a drought doesn’t bother Chamberlain rancher Charlie Totton. It’s the second and third years that worry him. It’s the extended drought that can be ruinous to ranchers across the state.
“It looks real scary,” Totton said. “The whole country is pretty much grazed off right now. I’ve been watching and the forecast for rain is not good for this coming year. We have registered Black Angus for the most part. When you’ve got thirty years invested in breeding purebred cattle, selling cows out is not an option. I can’t do that. I can’t replace these cows that I’ve been breeding on for thirty years.”
The upside is Totton has a drought plan, which has been part of his grassland management since the 1980’s. He stockpiles forage ahead to use during a drought, and plans to sell yearlings if it comes to that. “I’ve been ahead since the last drought. But now I’m using up some feed I put up a couple of years ago, and I’m starting to get down on feed supply,” he said.
“A lot of times we keep heifers around to breed, but last summer we knew we’d be in trouble and we sold half of the yearlings that we normally would have run,” Totton said. “That frees up more grass to maintain our cow herd.” As part of his drought plan, he’ll make a decision whether or not to sell more yearlings this year later on in May.
“It’s dry. Dig a hole in the pasture and it’s dry going down––people who are putting in water lines say it’s dry down five feet,” Dan Rasmussen said last week. “We’re hurting. A lot of cows have gone through the sale barn, and a lot of calves,” the west-central rancher said. “I’m looking at less than 50 percent of the average forage production.”
Rasmussen has had a drought plan for more than 25 years.
“Good range management is the basis of every drought plan,” he said. “Nature wants you to protect the land by good grazing practices. So, we’ve been doing that and seeing benefits in dry years. That’s the first part of our drought plan. The second part is to start selling livestock. We have different kinds of livestock on this ranch; cow-calf, yearling steers and heifers, organic yearling heifers, and purchased yearlings.
“Our plan is to start selling yearlings. We’re going to implement that pretty quickly, in the next few weeks,” Rasmussen said. “We also sold the lower-class cows last winter. We’ve downsized our cow herd, we’re in a position to sell 400-500 yearlings, and that takes a lot of pressure off the pastures.”
The Blair family has been running a short-duration rotational grazing system on Blair Brothers Angus ranch since the 1980’s, helping to ease drought effects. “I can get by two years pretty good. I’ve got the ground cover there. So if we do get rain, we’ll be able to hold it,” Ed Blair says. “In my mind it’s all about management, looking at what’s going on out there and evaluating what you’re doing.”
Still, if rain doesn’t come, the Blairs have plans to help get through the drought. “I always keep a lot of replacement heifers. Everybody sells their young cows and I just cringe when they do that. If you’re going to sell something, get rid of them old cows,” he said. “Keep your young cows, keep your heifer calves and you’re right back in when it rains if you’ve kept grass cover on the land.”
The Blairs also run yearlings. “In a drought we can put them on feed and pasture the cows on the yearling pasture,” he said, “and that gives us more flexibility.” Another part of his plans to counteract drought is to wean calves earlier. “We weaned calves earlier last year. What it does for you, is it doesn’t take much to maintain a cow out there if she doesn’t have a calf sucking on her,” Blair said. “My trigger for when to start weaning calves is to pay attention to range and cow condition. If either begin to slip, I get ready to wean. Those younger calves wean real easy.”
“Everybody’s scared out here,” Ed Blair said this week, referring to the drought in South Dakota. “Pastures are short in the area, beyond short––we’re really going to need something to keep us going here.”
Thanks to the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition for their excellent series of press releases helping to prepare graziers for this year’s drought. Working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and South Dakota State University, they’ve created a site with the information you need to plan for, and help mitigate, the impacts of lingering drought conditions on your ranch. Head over for more drought planning resources.
On Pasture subscribers can also download the free ebook “Drought Planning 101.”
And check out April’s Grazier’s Focus and The Thinking Grazier for more ideas on tactics to make it through hard times in the short-term and longer-term strategies to match your livestock to your resource for a more profitable grazing operation.