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Water

NDMC looks at continuing drought, establishing ranch plans to alleviate effects

As drought continues to plague much of the United States, the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) took at look at the importance of drought plans for producers across the country and the components in developing a plan. 

“We encourage you to think through things that can be done ahead of drought to make your operation as resilient as possible,” said Cody Knutson, water resources scientist for the NDMC, in the first of a five-part webinar series. “Then, you are less likely to experience impacts and will know what you can do as drought intensifies.”

2012 drought

Climatologist Mark Svoboda recapped last year’s drought, comparing it to what 2013 might brings.

“One of the real kickers from 2012 was that it wasn’t just dryness,” he explained. “The dryness was exacerbated by heat waves that started early in the spring and with continued heat waves in June and July.”

As a whole, the U.S. saw the warmest March and July on record, with July being the hottest month since recordkeeping started in 1885. He added that it was also the warmest year.

As heat covered the country, Svoboda said, “By then, it was pretty much over.”

“Last year was the second most costly year on record for hazards,” he continued. “Estimates show that damage from the drought is at $50 to $80 billion, and a lot of those estimate don’t include livestock.”

“For Nebraska and Wyoming, not only was it the warmest year on record, but it was also the driest,” he said.

Though Svoboda said dryness was patchy across the country, 2012 was the driest year on record – surpassing even the 1930s and 1950s.

Additionally, wet years in 2010-11 provided a buffer for dry conditions in 2012 that will not be available for 2013, which eased the drought last year.

Looking forward

“Last year, we had a buffer to get us through,” Svoboda explained. “This time last year, 18.74 percent of the U.S. was in a D1 through D4 drought. This year, we are at 67 percent.”

Though some improvements have been seen, he noted that the majority are confined to Indiana and Illinois, while 70 percent of the domestic cattle inventory is in areas of drought.

“Last year in September, we peaked with 76 percent of our inventory in drought,” he said, for comparison. 

For the coming year, he also added that winter moisture levels are not looking positive now.

“Heading into February and April, we can see a greater likelihood of above normal temperatures,” he said. “We haven’t had a great follow up to the warm, dry winter of last year.”

“We are putting all our eggs in one basket, hoping for a heavy spring,” Svoboda explained. “We don’t have the insurance blanket going into 2013 that we had in 2012, and we are living from rain event to rain event.”

Planning ahead

With a pretty bleak outlook for the next year, West Central Research and Extension Center Range and Forage Specialist Jerry Volesky marked drought planning as an important and useful tool for ranches.

“Overall, there are eight components to a ranch drought plan,” he explained. “It is up to each operation as far as how much detail and precision they want to include.”

Components of drought management plan include communication and planning partners; ranch vision and objectives; understanding of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) during drought; inventory of ranch resources; critical dates for making decisions; monitoring schedule; management strategies; and an ongoing review of the drought plan. 

Describing the components, Volesky said, “It is important that everyone is on board and knows what is going to happen.”

“The third component deals with the SWOT analysis,” he added. “This is important from the drought readiness perspectives. Discuss what are your strengths and weaknesses regarding drought.”

In preparing for drought, Volesky commented that it is also important for producers to know where they stand in terms of forage production potential, livestock and grazing options as well precipitation records.

“The fifth component is important – and a lot of people have plans that focus on this one,” he explained. “Critical or trigger dates are all about monitoring precipitation amounts and looking at those dates to estimate forage growth for the season. When there are deficits, it triggers management decisions to bring things back into balance.”

By comparing yearly production to past production standards, Volesky explained that there is a good correlation between periods of rainfall and annual herbage or grass production seen on rangelands.

“Carryover grass is also important,” he said. “Last year, we saw good pasture production from 2010-11 that helped ranchers out in 2012.”

“If we follow forecasts as we go into spring, we should be able to get an idea of what will happen,” he commented, “and that could help us in some of our decision regarding stocking and drought plans.”

Lastly, Volesky encouraged producers to review their plans.

“It is a learning process,” he said of planning for drought. “Every drought is somewhat different, and it is a complex situation. We have a lot of different interactions related to timing and precipitation.”

“Each year we go through drought, it is important to keep good records,” Volesky commented, “and realize this is a continual learning process.”

Listen to this webinar and register for the next four in the five-part series held by the National Drought Mitigation Center at drought.unl.edu/ranchplan.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.