Drought Management vs. Drought Mitigation

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Written By: Ross Bronson

Recent research from the University of Arizona shows that, across the west, yearly rainfall has decreased, dry periods have become longer, and average temperatures have increased. For producers out on the land, no research is necessary.  It is painfully obvious that drought has become more prevalent. It is important that the ranching community shift focus from drought management to drought mitigation.

The term “management” is defined as “the process of dealing with or controlling things or people”. The term “mitigation” is defined as “to make less severe, serious, or painful”. These definitions suggest that drought management is dealing with or controlling it. Mitigation, on the other hand, is making drought less severe, serious or painful. A shift from “dealing” with drought when it comes to making decisions and preparations that mitigate it is important for producers.

Here are three ways that drought can be mitigated.

First is calculating an accurate and conservative long-term carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is the number of animal units a landscape can sustain over time. This is most often 1 year. While it is tempting to maximize utilization, it has been shown to have detrimental effects on the health of rangeland and producer profitability in the long run. Many have heard the adage “take half leave half”. Consumption estimates are best when accurately calculated by average cow body weight. A traditional animal unit (AU) is considered a 1,000-pound cow that consumes 26 pounds of feed on average per day. I won’t dive into AU conversions here but suffice it to say that the average cow is no longer 1,000 pounds. Appropriate carrying capacity calculations avoid stressing landscapes making them more resilient during drought conditions and more likely to recover in a timely manner.

Second is to implement sound grazing practices that preserve the health of your rangeland. Conservative grazing management leaves residual standing forage on the land. Residual forage is beneficial for many reasons. It provides shade that keeps soil temperatures low. Standing cover reduces erosion. Residual forage is laid down through trampling or snowpack. This supports cooler soil temperature (cooler soil means better microbe functioning and improves the nutrient cycle), but it also promotes decomposition of organic matter. All these contribute to improved water absorption which is valuable when less precipitation comes. In short, you keep more of the rain that falls.

Third is forward thinking. What will happen on your ranch during drought conditions? Will you early wean calves? Will you cull heavy? Do you have access to pasture in times of drought? Will you need to purchase feed, or do you maintain inventory levels that allow you to dry lot your cattle if they come home early? Do you have reserve forage that you can graze in the fall? At Redd Summit Advisors we have seen how funds from Pasture, Range, and Forage (PRF) can be used to purchase hay, allow for lease options such as crop residual, or pay for custom feeding. These measures reduce the need to sell cattle and avoid overutilization of rangelands. PRF can turn what has historically been tough times into a great opportunity! Forward thinking allows producers to mitigate drought rather than simply deal with it.

What is your operation’s drought mitigation plan? Drought planning may vary among different operations but rest assured that a plan will be important as the ranching community continues to face drought conditions more frequently.

If we as producers can shift our focus from drought management to drought mitigation, we will be prepared for the effects of drought on our individual operations.  We will also be able to protect the landscapes which support our livelihood and avoid the fiscal repercussions of de-stocking. Just remember, if you are prepared, there’s no need to fear!

About the Author: Ross was born and raised in Idaho and has managed ranches in Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and Hawaii. He has enjoyed the exposure to different operational practices these opportunities have given him. He is passionate about all things horses and will talk all day about them if you let him. Ross had the opportunity to start his own livestock operation in southwestern Colorado where, in his second year, he weathered severe drought conditions. It was only later that Ross learned about PRF and its benefits! He looks forward to helping ranchers incorporate PRF into their drought mitigation strategies and show how it can help their profitability. Ross’ two proudest achievements are his family which he adores, and successfully earning a master’s degree in Ranch Management through the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. He is excited to join the Redd Summit Advisors team and is looking forward to the long-term relationships he will form with producers.

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