Many parts of Texas have been plagued by drought over the last year. Ranchers are enduring increasing feed costs and decreasing calf prices. The old adage "plan for the worst, hope for the best" comes to mind. Since most Texans can agree its pretty tough out on the ranch right now, drought management is on everybody's mind. Drought management begins before there is a drought. Every operation should have a plan in mind for dealing with dry times. It will rain again but the next drought is always right around the corner. In order to recover from a drought quickly, the land should be taken care of during the drought. Otherwise, the long-term productivity of the land could be at stake, whether it continues to rain or not.
The first key to managing livestock during a drought begins with stocking rate. Many ranches will only stock cattle at about 80 percent of the land's carrying capacity. This plan allows a ranch to "coast" through minor or even moderate drought without making large adjustments to their stocking rate. This principle is especially important in a cow-calf herd. Most folks that have spent a lifetime putting together a set of gentle, productive cows are not in a hurry to start the process over. By stocking well below carrying capacity, productive breeding stock seldom has to be sold. In wet years, some ranches will buy additional cows or stocker cattle to take advantage of extra forage production. The key to increasing the herd size up to carrying capacity is to do so with animals that can be sold readily when dry conditions begin.
Secondly, when prolonged drought sets in, a livestock herd may have to be reduced in size so that available forage is not overused. Most ranchers will work their way through the herd in order of productivity; selling the least productive animals first. Typically this would be any stocker cattle on the property, followed by open cows, and then old cows. If there are calves on the remaining cows, early weaning the calves is a way to lessen the nutritional demands on the cows. Dry, or non-lactating, cows have considerably less nutritional requirements and stand a better chance to breed back during hard times. The rancher works through the herd in this manner saving only young, productive cows and the minimal number of bulls. The reduced herd should be in balance with the forage available in the pasture.
In 1973, George Jones and Tammy Wynette released a song titled "We're Gonna Hold On," and holding on to cattle and feeding them was common during drought well before this tune was released. It is easy to see how a person can get into this situation. Many times, a rancher steadily culls the herd and selects the most productive animals.
When drought sets in, there are not many open or old, wild cows in the herd. Selling an animal from this herd means selling a good animal. The downside is that feeding a cow herd through a drought once the forage in the pasture is gone is very expensive.
More times than not, it will be at a loss instead of a profit. If a rancher chooses to do so, it is most likely best to confine the herd to a small trap so that they do not continually overgraze the rest of the ranch. Leaving the herd out on the pasture once adequate forage is gone ensures damage to the plant community and much longer drought recovery time.
At times, many ranchers consider "opening the gates" as a drought management strategy. Don't worry, this doesn't mean they throw in the towel and kick cows out on the highway. "Opening the gates" refers to a ranch that is practicing rotational grazing. Gates will be opened during the drought so that the herd can graze the entire ranch at one time as opposed to just one pasture. There are definitely two sides of the story when it comes to this strategy. First, allowing a cow herd to graze a greater amount of area will allow individual cows to be more selective in the plants they graze. By having a greater size area to graze, a cow will typically find more nutritious plants to graze.
In the short term, this practice would typically allow the cows to have a little better diet and perform better than they would if the entire herd stayed in just one pasture. An example of where this practice might fit would be when cows have calves on them that are too young to sell. "Opening the gates" may allow the cows to get a little better diet while raising that calf to an age where it can be early weaned. This is a short-term "fix" for a short-term problem. The other side of the story is the long-term effect of this practice. A 1,000-pound cow eats about 26 pounds a day of forage. So, in 30 days, 100 cows would attempt to consume 78,000 pounds or 39 tons of forage.
The cows will attempt to consume these 39 tons of forage no matter whether they are in one pasture or have access to the whole ranch. The net effect on a dormant stand of drought-stricken forage is the same. Often times, "opening the gates" makes the effect less noticeable to the eye since the overuse is spread across the entire ranch. Either way, open gates or not, overuse of grass will result in decreased grass production in the future and increased recovery time.
When the first reports of rainfall start to come in during a drought, recovery is on everyone's mind. So how can a rancher recover from extended drought? The number one thing a rancher can do for a quick recovery is leave adequate stubble height on the grass in the pasture. On most bunch grasses, this would be 6 to 8 inches of stubble. The reason for this is twofold.
The first reason is that with adequate grass cover, rainfall received is more likely to soak into the soil as opposed to running off. Bare ground leads to poor infiltration and lots of over land runoff. High amounts of runoff leads to erosion of topsoil that is very, very slowly replaced. By leaving adequate grass stubble and grass litter on the soil surface, the land acts like a sponge to soak up needed rainfall. Research has documented pastures growing twice as much grass on half as much rain by following this principle.
Secondly, leaving adequate stubble heights allows grass to grow much easier when moisture returns. The leaves on grass plants act as solar panels to produce energy required for growth. Without healthy leaves, root growth suffers and new leaves must be generated from stored energy. The result of not leaving enough stubble is a downward spiral of negative effects on the land and the forage plants. If there is not enough leaf on the grass, little grass litter will be produced. When it does rain, there will be less moisture infiltrating the soil and less available moisture for plant growth. The result is a slow, prolonged recovery from drought.
All in all, surviving a drought is accomplished by being a good steward of the land. In the livestock business, this often means making some tough decisions. The rancher who has survived the droughts of time has learned to adapt and manage the land under the extreme conditions Mother Nature provides. These are the individuals that will be left to tell the story to their children and grandchildren.
Jason Hohlt is a Rangeland Management Specialist with the USDA-NRCS.