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Guest Opinions

Extension by Mae Smith, Rachel Mealor and John Ritten

Written by Mae Smith, Rachel Mealor and John Ritten
2012 was one of the driest years we have seen in quite a while. The looming question now is what will conditions be like next year?! Many landowners have survived numerous droughts throughout their lifetime, and the survivors most likely had a plan in place to make it through. Below we discuss, in broad terms, dates and situations that may assist in the decision making process in order to stay ahead during the drought.    
    Developing a drought strategy begins well before the lack of moisture and expected forage is evident. Spring can be a busy time period for livestock producers, with a majority of Wyoming producers calving from February through May. Along with calving, producers should be thinking about precipitation amounts. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has snow telemetry sites throughout Wyoming to measure the amount of snow pack. The monthly report provides information on snow water equivalent compared to the average and monthly precipitation levels reported for each site. Individuals can see if the snowpack is above or below average to help determine if runoff will be adequate to provide irrigation water for the season. Knowing precipitation amounts can aid in determining moisture levels for rangeland or non-irrigated locations. This information can be accessed at wrds.uwyo.edu/wrds/nrcs/snowpack/snowmap.html. As Mike Smith always says, precipitation received in April and May will determine if grass will be available on rangelands, suggesting that decisions regarding stocking levels and grazing strategies should be determined by the end of April.
    Spring is also a time to be developing marketing strategies for livestock. On average and during normal years, slaughter cow prices peak in July. However, during periods of drought, prices tend to peak in April or May, due to the markets getting flooded in midsummer as many destock to account for a lack of feed. So, if snowpack and precipitation are low enough to cause concern and destocking is part of your drought plan, selling in late spring may provide you an edge in the market.
    Summer is a great time to collect vegetation monitoring information. Conducting vegetation monitoring during this time ensures ease of identification, as plants have seedheads, and is an opportune time to document plants in their peak production period, or maximum growth. Vegetation monitoring can be broken into two separate categories, short term and long term monitoring. Long term monitoring provides an evaluation of the overall trend of the vegetation in an area. Short term monitoring, such as stubble height, annual production, etc., can be useful in providing annual information to assist in timely decisions regarding vegetation production. Such information will likely have greater implications during drought periods when rapid decisions have to made.
    As seen throughout history, droughts may last more than one year, and each year after the first can prove even worse than the one before. Having the ability to look back on records and document the effects of various strategies will assist in future decisions for the operation.
    Hopefully feed has held out into late summer and fall. However, during dry years this often becomes the limiting factor. So questions, like do we buy feed or should we sell calves, come to mind. Looking at the hay market in normal years, prices tend to peak in late spring and drop over the summer/fall and are expected to fall through the end of the year. While over the last few drought years, prices began to rise in May/June, and the price range is greater than normal years. However, before investing in expensive feed, it is beneficial to pencil out the price that will be received for the additional gain on animals versus the cost of purchasing that feed. Another important aspect to the decision of buying feed is cattle prices in the next few years.
    For example, if cattle prices are high right now, it’s only economical to buy feed if the cost of carrying a cow will be recovered from the profit gained from selling calves in the next few years (high cattle prices). To maintain efficient gains, the animal’s nutritional needs must be met. Having your forage tested will determine if the needs will be met with that feed or if a supplement is required. The local UW Extension office has supplies and information to assist in forage testing.
    If you are interested in managing risk through purchasing insurance, one option is Pasture Range and Forage (PRF) Insurance offered through USDA Risk Management Agency.  This insurance must be purchased by Nov. 15 for the following year.  
    Winter can be an opportune time to evaluate last year’s decisions and strategies while making needed adjustments for the upcoming growing season. If you do not have a drought or grazing plan already in place, it is never too late to start! A few components of these documents may include property goals and objectives, each pasture and the forage available during a normal year (as determined by vegetation monitoring), current grazing/rotation strategy with moving dates, adjustments and potential management alternatives during drought, and planned improvements.
    Hay prices are always on our minds, especially in a dry year. If hay prices become lower during the winter, this may be a good time to purchase extra to stockpile for next year and sell it if unneeded and prices are higher (July in dry years).    
    Drought can be very stressful and the number of decisions to make can be overwhelming.  Drought plans help in managing the complexity of an operation by considering numerous ways changes can be made to survive such difficult times. So, one take home message regarding management during drought is to have a plan yet maintain flexibility and develop alternative ideas that will enable you to prevail in the face of adversity. Also, try to beat your neighbor to the punch on culling cows, selling your calves and buying hay. An applicable saying to remember is, “It pays to plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”
    For more information on this topic, visit rma.usda.gov/policies/pasturerangeforage, droughtmonitor.unl.edu or cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/expert_assessment/seasonal_drought.html.