The Best Time to Think about DroughtWritten by John Ritten
Most of us start worrying about drought when we need to, not when we want to. I encourage all of you to start thinking about drought management and contingency plans now, both because we are able to consider various strategies that may require time and money to implement – a luxury not often afforded to us during a drought – and because the next drought could be just around the corner.
We are in a “slower” time of year for most operations, and we should have some time to do some long-term planning. Take advantage of the colder weather by staying inside by the fire and looking at ways to improve your operation’s resiliency, especially as it regards drought.
This is a time of year that should allow of you to revisit the experiences from the last drought and ask the questions, “What did we have to do? And, in hindsight, were there better options?” “What would have helped if we had done it sooner?” and “What resources would have helped us if we had them in place?”
The next drought
As we all know, in Wyoming we are never far from the next drought. The most recent drought monitor, available at droughtmonitor.unl.edu, puts over 61 percent of the state in “Abnormally Dry” conditions. Granted, much of our forage is currently dormant, but I am still concerned about the lack of moisture. Most of us have seen the research showing how important spring precipitation is to forage production in our state.
Further, recent research out of the Agricultural Research Service shows that cow/calf production in our region is also dependent on prior winter precipitation. This work implies that now is a very good time to start thinking about drought, as we are two months into an important period for precipitation and we are behind.
Granted, the El Niño cycle is projected to bring moisture yet this winter, but we are already behind, and the moisture has not materialized yet. I’ll be happy if it does, but I also want to be prepared in case it doesn’t.
Another reason I think it is a good time to revisit our drought plans is that we are probably in the best situation we have been in and are likely to be able to implement some of our grander plans.
While cattle prices have tumbled a bit in recent months, they are still well above any year other than 2014. We are in the unique position of having had two good price years in a row. Of course, annual cow costs have increased year-over-year, but even with the increased cow costs, we are expecting very high returns to cow/calf producers this year.
Don’t get too comfortable, though. Most analysts expect these annual returns to drop dramatically as inventory numbers increase. As you can see in the accompanying figure, the 2014 and 2015 annual returns on a per-cow basis have been much higher than any other time in recent history, and no one expects these to last.
Therefore, as everyone begins the tax management part of the year, I encourage you to see if there are any infrastructure improvements that can be implemented now. We should be in the unique position of having available capital to invest and be able to make proactive decisions in regards to drought rather than the reactive strategies we usually have to make.
Most proactive strategies take some time and capital to implement and will vary greatly across operations but may include fencing/water placement to encourage more uniform utilization, the establishment of grass banks and even irrigation systems.
The goal of any proactive strategy should allow us to rely less on the reactive strategies such as excessive destocking, early weaning and buying additional feed that often allows us to get through the tough times but can hurt our operation in the long-run.
Again, deciding on which investment is right for your place is dependent on the operation’s resources, and I encourage you to ask a range and/or animal specialist for help prioritizing improvements on your place.
This is the year you will most likely be able to afford the improvements you’ve been meaning to make on your operation. Before the end of the year, sit down and figure those out.
But, don’t spend money just to spend it. There may not be any specific projects that would have helped you in recent drought years. In that case, I encourage you to not spend money just to decrease your tax bill this year.
It may be the wisest investment to leave some profit in the savings account so you have access to a “rainy day” account when you need it, which, in the livestock business, is usually those days that aren’t actually rainy.
The USDA Agricultural Research Service research report referenced in this article can be found at Reeves, J.L., Derner, J.D., Sanderson, M.A., Petersen, M.K., Vermeire, L.T., Hendrickson, J.R., Kronberg, S.L., 2013a. Seasonal temperature and precipitation effects on cow-calf production in northern mixed-grass prairie. Livest. Science 155, 355-363.
Looking forward Drought plans are a vital tool for producersWritten by Madeline Robinson
“If a drought plan lives in Dad’s head and that’s the only place it exists, it’s not a drought plan,” stated Dallas Mount, University of Wyoming Extension educator.
“We need to have this plan written down, communicated and agreed upon by all the parties who are involved with the ranch before an operation goes through a drought,” continued Mount.
Mount spoke at the Wyoming Department of Agriculture Drought Contingency Workshop webinar May 6 to help ranching operations develop a drought contingency plan for their grazing permits.
Mount mentioned that the drought plan does not need to be a lengthy document written by a lawyer but something that everyone who is involved on an operation can agree upon. It should also be recorded on a piece of paper.
“One of the things that needs to be in a drought plan is a destocking strategy,” said Mount. “Producers need to determine which animals are going to be the first to leave, the next in line to leave and then the animals that are the last to leave.”
Mount noted that a destocking strategy needs to involve selling, or even relocating, some animals.
“Rarely does it work to look at a drought plan that involves feeding animals as a profitable strategy,” warned Mount. “If producers start feeding animals, especially for anything longer than 30 days, in terms of a drought management strategy, it really turns negative in a hurry.”
Drought plans should also encompass target dates as to when critical decisions need to be made for an operation to implement a drought plan.
Mount advised producers to conduct research and determine the best timing and resources an operation has to determine precipitation and soil moisture levels, as well as carrying capacity and stocking rates.
“Drought plans also need to deal with people,” commented Mount. “A ranch that has 500 cows and two employees might reduce to 150 cows and one employee in the time of a drought.”
He added, “We need to have those employment strategies outlined in a drought plan ahead of time so that people who are working on an operation – those who are relying on the operation for income sources – are aware that during a drought, they might have to find a job somewhere else.”
“The most significant component of a drought plan as far as people are concerned is the emotional part,” noted Mount. “Drought is extremely emotionally draining to those folks who are operating the land.”
“Having to sell off animals that they have spent a lifetime building and matching the animals to their environment, seeing the stress on other people in their lives, feeling responsible to provide a cash flow to those folks who are involved can really get to a person” added Mount.
Mount advised that producers need to get on the front end of drought and make a drought plan before a drought occurs.
“When producers are in the middle of the throes of a drought, the emotional side of it can really cloud their decision making,” warned Mount.
Mount further stated financial aspects are another important issue to address in a drought plan.
“Generally when producers are in a drought and are selling their livestock, they are not in a financial crisis during those drought years,” commented Mount, “due to the ranch’s cash income from selling the livestock.”
“The net worth of the operation has not really changed, though, because the producer has just traded their livestock for cash,” said Mount. “However, we need to have a financial plan to manage that cash, so if at some point in the future they choose to put that cash back into livestock, it will be there.”
“Generally, it’s a year to two years after the drought that the financial hardship really happens as producers are trying to restock the ranch,” warned Mount.
Mount mentioned range health as another point to address in a drought plan.
Producers should be very cautious about not overgrazing their rangelands during the time of a drought. Effects of overgrazing during drought years can be catastrophic, and producers could deal with poor rangelands for the next decade as a result.
“A really good objective might be to look at the long-term monitoring of the land and plant population, so we keep the most productive plants in good health through the drought,” stated Mount.
“The last thing to think about for a drought plan is signatures,” stated Mount. “Folks who need to sign the drought plan are the people who have a significant stake in the business, especially if they have an ownership interest or a managerial stake in the business.”
“The signature part is the major part of the drought plan,” he continued. “It says they have read and understood the drought plan and are willing to be pro-active in the operation’s drought planning.”
“People need to sign the drought plan to show this is the plan that needs to be implemented if conditions get bad enough when a drought starts to occur,” said Mount. “They also need to seriously consider enacting the plan when an operation is lacking in precipitation and forage around those target dates.”
Drought impacts, Tree windbreak damage needs evaluatedWritten by Gayle Smith
The 2012 drought has taken its toll on many tree windbreaks. Producers may want to spend some time surveying their trees to identify not only trees that are dead but ones that are suffering from drought and water stress.
According to Southwestern Nebraska District Forester Rachel Allison, trees that have turned brown or are turning brown are dead.
“After having an open, dry winter in 2011 and then 80 degrees in March, followed by a hot, dry summer with virtually no precipitation, all types of trees were affected by the drought in 2012. We had people call who couldn’t understand why trees that were 30 to 40 years old were dying,” she explained. “This drought affected everything from newly established trees to old trees and all types of trees.”
Allison said some pine trees have had their tops turn brown from lack of water.
“What happens is there isn’t enough moisture available in the soil for the roots to get moisture and pull it all the way to the top of the tree,” she said. “In some cases, it can only go part way or half up the tree.”
The results of the drought vary depending upon moisture deprivation and type of tree, she said.
Broadleaf trees may have brown leaf margins and irregular browning in the veins. They may also show brown scorching on the leaves.
Spruce trees may show some purpling from lack of water.
Trees like pines may have shorter tip growth. Allison showed one instance where the tips had grown five inches in a good year and only an inch during the drought.
These trees may also suffer more damage from winter freeze and burning, since they are already drought stressed.
“People may notice some white tips on the pine trees. This is uniform needle dieback, which is mainly caused by lack of water,” she said. “If it was caused by insects or disease, the white tips would be more sporadic than uniform.”
Allison said producers should make time to assess damage to their tree windbreaks.
One of the first things to evaluate is the soil moisture, which can be determined with a screwdriver, soil probe or a rod or dowel.
“Producers should be able to push the rod in at least down to 12 inches,” Allison said. “Eighteen inches is even better.”
If the trees are lacking water, Allison recommends watering them through a dripline, water wagon or hose.
“Trees do better with infrequent rainfall events and normally survive fairly well in years with average rainfall,” she said. “In windbreaks with a drip system that can be turned on as needed, water the trees at least once or twice a summer.”
“Run the water until the moisture in the soil is down several inches,” she recommended. “Typically, we think of watering right along the top, but this way water is only put on temporarily. We actually need to get the water down to a depth of two feet. That is where the adequate soil moisture is required for root growth and so the tree can absorb nutrients.”
Moisture needs can also vary depending upon the tree species, soil type and the amount of compaction. The trees also need moisture in an area that extends to the edge of the tree’s canopy, Allison noted.
Trees should be watered for 12 to 24 hours at each location and until the end of the line is reached.
“Water them again in three to four weeks if the weather is still hot, and there has been no rainfall,” she added. “Watering frequency can also depend on the type of trees in the windbreak, if they are evergreen or deciduous, the size and age of the trees, whether the ground is shaded or open and the presence of cool season grasses, like brome.”
The windbreak setting can also be a factor, she continued. Producers should ask themselves questions, such as, is the windbreak exposed to a lot of wind, and is it next to a lawn or pivot?
“Trees can take a while to show drought stress,” Allison concluded.
Some signs are subtle like thinning of the crown, fewer leaves and shorter new growth each year.
“The previous droughts in 2001-02 and 2006-07 reduced the mass of the tree’s root system, which limits the amount of water and nutrients the tree can take in,” she explained. “This can make any age of tree susceptible to drought.”
Wyoming’s climate forecast looks drought-free for much of the stateWritten by Madeline Robinson
With the high precipitation Wyoming has been seeing these past few weeks, the drought has subsided, and there are only a few areas of the state that are still being slightly impacted, explains Tony Bergantino, service climatologist with the Wyoming State Climate Office (SCO).
“We still have some lingering dry areas through Sweetwater County, Uinta County, the southern portion of Lincoln County and several places in Carbon County that are still in a watch area for drought, but they are not really in a drought,” comments Bergantino. “It’s what we call abnormally dry at the moment.”
The only area in the state of Wyoming that is still experiencing moderate drought conditions is the southwest corner of Uinta County.
“The state as a whole, when looking at the snowpack, is about 135 percent of the median,” explains Bergantino, “which is really good compared to this time last year, when we were down in the 80 percent range.”
“It wasn’t until we got those good snowstorms in the first part of April last year that we actually came up to normal,” adds Bergantino, “but we are well ahead of that at the moment.”
Bergantino comments that a good snowpack will lead to good runoff of water in the spring and will be beneficial in keeping the soil moisture in good standing.
It should also transition more of the abnormally dry areas into being completely drought-free.
“We have some pretty good snowpack building up right now,” says Bergantino. “Some of the basins are moving into almost uncharted areas as far as snowpack, which is going to be good for water supply down the road in spring and summer when the crops can be utilizing it and irrigation can be taking place.”
“Colorado has improved considerably over the last several months from that September flooding they had,” says Bergantino, “but that precipitation really helped us up here, as well.”
Before the high levels of precipitation seen last September, Bergantino described Wyoming as having a lot of moderate drought and severe drought areas throughout the state.
After the storms passed, several drought-impacted areas of Wyoming lessened or cleared up entirely.
“Fortunately, we didn’t receive any of the heavy rains like Boulder, Colo. and those other areas did,” Bergantino adds.
Bergantino added the SCO is always updating results and monitoring Wyoming’s climate.
One of the projects they currently have going on is to try and collect more information about Wyoming’s climate and weather through the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHs).
CoCoRaHs is comprised of volunteers who place rain gauges in their yards and report their results back to the SCO to help them keep an eye on what the weather in Wyoming is doing.
“This helps us to keep an eye on things where there are no weather stations,” explains Bergantino. “We are equipping volunteers who are across the state and willing to observe and report their findings daily, so we get as near to real time indications of what precipitation patterns are doing and what amounts have fallen in an area.”
“CoCoRaHs members report precipitation levels, so we can see where rain has fallen and what areas are reporting zeros,” describes Bergantino. “Those are the areas we keep an eye on, especially when we are looking at a drought.”
CoCoRaHs is a national effort and was founded in Fort Collins, Colo. at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in 1998. This initiative began due to a flood Fort Collins, Colo. encountered in 1997.
The program spread to Wyoming in 2003, and there are approximately 19,000 active observers across the U.S.
“We have a fair number of CoCoRaHs members in Wyoming, but we could always use more, especially with how big this state is,” comments Bergantino. “There’s a lot of open space to cover in this state.”
“Wyoming has been in and out of droughts throughout history,” says Bergantino. “Actually, it is kind of hard to say when a drought is over unless a really good event occurs.”
“There can be severe drought in some areas and light to no drought at all in other parts of the same state,” says Bergantino. “We look at drought levels more in terms of particular areas rather than the state as a whole.”
The SCO uses precipitation reports from the National Weather Service, CoCoRaHs member input, soil moisture monitoring and looking at vegetation levels to determine Wyoming’s climate conditions.
“When we get precipitation, and it just runs off into the river, it doesn’t do much to alleviate the drought,” mentions Bergantino. “But if we can see the precipitation actually going into a soil column and building up a reserve of moisture, we can see what we are doing and have a better idea what’s going on.”
“Hopefully we can all solicit input from interested parties and from various agencies to try and come up with a combined effort of reporting,” comments Bergantino. “It’s always helpful to have that on-the-ground information coming in. That’s what we are trying to establish.”
Categories of drought
“There are four categories to determine drought and one category for abnormally dry conditions,” says Tony Bergantino, service climatologist with the Wyoming State Climate Office.
Designations D-0 through D-4 indicate the level of drought seen in an area.
D-0 describes abnormally dry conditions. Though not necessarily drought conditions, the onset of drought is evident in some areas or the areas are beginning to recover from drought. Under D-0, indicators of drought fall into the 30th percentile, equating to a roughly one-in-three year of dryness.
Moderate drought conditions are described as level D-1. At this level, some damage to crops and pastures can be expected. Fire risk is high, and streams, reservoirs and wells are low. Some water shortages are developing or imminent and voluntary water use restrictions could be requested. Indicators of drought fall into the 20th percentile or a one-in-five year type event.
When D-2, or severe drought, occurs, crop or pasture losses are likely, and risk of fire is very high. Water shortages are common, and water restrictions are usually voluntary or mandated. Indicators of drought are in the 10th percentile and typically equate to a one-in-10 year drought.
Extreme drought is described by a D-3 status, and major crop and pasture losses are seen. Additionally, fire risk is extreme, and widespread water shortages can be expected requiring restrictions. Indicators of drought are in fifth percentile or one-in-20 year type of drought.
D-4 is an exceptional drought, where extraordinary and widespread crop and pasture losses are seen, and fire risk is abundant. There is a shortage of water reservoirs, streams and wells. This level of drought can loosely be likened to a “once-in-a-generation” type of drought. Indicators of drought are in the second percentile and are a one-in-50 year drought.SIDEBAR 2:
Flooding in Worland
The central part of Wyoming is not currently classified as being in a drought area, and on Feb. 7 ice jams on the Big Horn River caused flooding to occur in Worland.
The ice jamming under the bridges on the south and west sides of the town resulted in flooding.
“The area of Worland is receiving more precipitation than they need right now,” says Tony Bergantino of the Wyoming State Climate Office. “A lot of the flooding is from the timing of the melt of the snowpacks, and this timing is very critical when it comes to flooding.”
Governor Matt Mead called Wyoming National Guard members to help with the flooding efforts along the Big Horn River and evacuate 80 Worland residents from about 60 homes.
“When there is a rain on snow event, as well as warm to hot days, the snow just starts coming off the mountains in a hurry,” comments Bergantino.
Worland sugarbeet producer John Snyder did have some water running through his fields for a while but has not noticed any damage from the flooding,
“Once the ice broke loose the water levels went back down,” says Snyder.