Managing Drought Risk On the Ranch

The Role of Drought Preparedness in Improving the Sustainability of Great Plains Ranches

April 14, 2015

Producers throughout the nation continue to grow increasingly concerned about water scarcity. Farmers, ranchers, and agricultural educators are exploring new approaches to the challenges associated with water shortage and drought.

The National Drought Mitigation Center, (NDMC) based in Lincoln, NE, has a mission of “helping people and institutions develop and implement measures to reduce societal vulnerability to drought, stressing preparedness and risk management rather than crisis management.” In 2011, Tonya Haigh, a researcher at the NDMC, received a $56,366 NCR SARE Professional Development grant to increase the technical support available to help rangeland managers mitigate and plan for drought.

“While drought is a normal part of climate, it is certainly a threat to the financial and natural resource health of Great Plains ranches that rely on non irrigated rangeland,” said Haigh. “The drought of the early 2000s led to reductions in grazing capacity, irrigation capacity, and winter feed production, sale weights and weaning percentages, in brood herd numbers, and owner equity. Drought’s impacts may affect the ecological health as well as the financial health of a ranch operation for decades to come.”

According to Haigh, drought losses can be significantly minimized through ranchers’ efforts to prepare for drought. She explained that the purpose of her project was to share what the NDMC had learned about what rangeland managers could do to come through drought with minimum damages to both the ecological health of the ranch AND the financial health of the ranch.

Haigh and her team interviewed ranchers from across the Great Plains region who use drought planning and management strategies to minimize drought impacts in their operations. Based on what they learned, a “Managing Drought Risk on the Ranch” website was built to provide ranchers with a structure for their own drought plan, and to provide resources, information, and tools to help them take these recommended steps. The NCR-SARE Professional Development grant was used to train agricultural professionals in using the drought planning website and related resources, and to encourage them to work directly with rangeland managers on drought planning.

The project developed a 5-part webinar series targeted to agricultural professionals and advisors working with ranchers. More than 260 individuals registered for the webinar series, from SD, NE, KS, MN, MO, as well as MT, WY, CO, OK, TX, and AZ. Registrants included more than 40 extension educators and more than 55 NRCS employees, as well as farmers and ranchers, representatives of State Grazing Lands Coalitions, Forest Service (State or Federal), The Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, tribal colleges, state/tribal/county local governments, universities, State Conservation of Natural Resource Districts, and other non-profits. In addition, South Dakota State University Extension advertised and offered live viewings of the webinars at eight regional extension centers throughout South Dakota, with more than 70 attendees.

Before the webinar series began, Haigh says many of those who registered for the webinar series were not confident (or not sure) in their ability to use monitoring, planning, and decision-making resources. After the webinar series, based on her survey results, 60% had more confidence in their ability to make drought-related decisions, monitor drought, set critical decision-making dates, assess drought impacts on forage production, evaluate pastures during drought, write a drought plan, and identify relevant drought indicators.

“What this tells us is that ranchers have more, and more confident, sources of advice out there for putting together a drought plan for long term sustainability,” said Haigh.

Haigh says the ranchers they worked with to develop the program said their drought plans have paid off during past droughts. “They pointed to the health of their grass and quality of their rangeland. Some said that because of their efforts to adjust stocking rates at the earliest sign of drought and their grazing methods, they had avoided degrading their resource base and recovering their operations faster than they would have without a drought plan. And one rancher said their drought planning process had actually helped reduce their debt level,” said Haigh.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant:

Topics: Animal Production, Business Planning, Crop Production, Drought Tolerance, Dryland Farming, Farm Business Management, Feed/Forage, Livestock, Rangeland/Pasture Management, Water Management, Whole Farm Planning
Related Locations: Nebraska, North Central