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Guest Opinions

Extension by John Ritten

Written by John Ritten
Time for a Drought Management Plan
By John Ritten, UW Extension Economist

    Maybe it’s a bit late for a drought management plan this year, but this may be the best time to reexamine what happened and evaluate how you responded.
    I assume many of you have already done a lot in response to the drought and may not require much more action this year, while others are still deciding whether or not they will have to cull deeper still. Regardless, I’m sure all of you have done something, and many wish they would have done more sooner.
    Also, many of you likely want to forget about this year and move on as soon as possible. However, now is probably the best time to reflect and put on paper when some of those decisions you would have done differently might have occurred and what milestones would have signaled it was time, so next time you’re ready to pull the trigger. Also, now is a good time to start thinking about next year. What will/should you do if forage returns? What will or should you do if it doesn’t?
Plan for drought
    There are a few key points to remember when planning for or responding to a drought. Make sure you have an accurate assessment of your environment, including both the herd and ranch situations. Include factors such as herd needs and current grazing potential, as well as current and expected market environment. For example, some people took animals to market this spring or early summer as forage just started to look scarce with the realization that prices were about as favorable as they were likely to get for some time, especially if they expected drought-related culling to continue across the region. These producers saved their forage and likely made money as they decreased herd numbers.
    Along these lines, it is important now to understand what your current herd requires in terms of forage needs in the coming year(s). In Wyoming, drought events are often prolonged, and relying on precipitation next year may very well be a losing bet. It may make more sense to decrease herd numbers a bit more this fall, especially as current prices are still well above the five year average.
Long-term plans
    Once you have an idea of where you are, you need to decide where you want to be long-term and what you’re willing to do to get there in the short-term. For example, a lot of cows left our area this year. A majority of producers in this state refer to themselves as cow/calf producers. I assume a lot of them would like to stay that way. However, I also expect the price of both heifers and cows to be near record next year as the national herd begins to rebuild.
    Rather than rebuilding with breeding stock next year, it may make some sense to further cull cow numbers in the next year or two in order to keep some calves back as yearlings. Consider, for example, culling after weaning this fall. Remember, cull prices are still much higher than historical averages.
    This does two things. It reduces herd requirements on forage and adds flexibility if the drought continues. It’s often easier to send a steer to market in May than it is a pair. Then, after prices return to ‘normal’ levels, you can begin to rebuild breeding stock through purchases or increased heifer retention.
Learn from others
    I would also advise you to look at your neighbors. Some of them probably fared better than you this year and some of them probably worse. Learn from both of them. What did the good producers do? See if you can incorporate any of their strategies into your operations. What did the less prosperous do? Examine your operation and see if you are following any of their trends. Maybe you’re doing a lot of the same things, they got hit this year and you’re set up to follow the same path next year if the drought continues.
Evaluate
    Again, this is a good time to evaluate your operation. What did you do, and where did it leave you? What could you have done? Are there any obvious opportunities available this fall or next spring? For example, maybe you can sell some bred cows next year at those record prices, and get back in the market in a year or two after things settle down a bit.
    Are there any major threats you are or will be facing? You may have made it through this year, but how does your range look? Will it provide good forage next year if we get rain, or will it require additional recovery time?
    Every operation is different, but learn what you can from those around you. Good and bad producers both can help us learn.
    Also, visit with your local extension team. They will likely have some insight into range recovery times and expected animal performance in the coming years. And if you want to look at how different strategies perform on paper across extended drought, visit wyomingextension.org/agpubs/pubs/B1219.pdf.
    You may want to bookmark the weather services 90-day outlook at cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/predictions/long_range/seasonal.php?lead=01 and visit it in the spring to see if there are early warnings of extended drought.
    Also, a good resource regarding rangeland response to drought can be found at wyomingextension.org/agpubs/pubs/MP111_09.pdf.
    Finally, I would again encourage you to do a good self-evaluation. Where do you currently stand? Can you afford another drought year? Then decide where it is you want to be in five to 10 years, and what you’re willing or able to do to get there.