BROOKINGS, S.D. - Drought is here for many cattle producers across South Dakota. With drought come many difficult decisions. At this difficult time, along with their cattle herd, Sean Kelly, SDSU Extension Range Management Field Specialist urges ranchers to consider the natural resources they are also responsible for during drought.
"Just as every factory needs a sturdy and healthy foundation to be sustainable, a ranch manager must keep a watchful eye on the natural resources of the ranch during drought," Kelly said, adding that the natural resources are the foundation for all other perspectives of a ranch.
Other ranch perspectives Kelly references may include:
- Quality of life
"Natural resources to a large extent also set the boundaries for each of the other perspectives on a ranch," Kelly said.
He explained that it's a ranches' natural resources which determine the number of cattle that can be stocked or the number of wildlife that can be sustained, as well as the amount of forage crops or hay that can be produced. "Striving to maintain the rangeland resources in the best condition as possible through a drought will be crucial for a fast recovery when conditions improve," he said.
Vegetation conserves moisture
Since nearly all the forage growth for this year has occurred, Kelly said a ranch manager must try to maintain some vegetation cover on the soil surface to help aid in restoring soil moisture as quickly as possible when rain returns.
"Leaving adequate vegetation cover in the pasture will increase the water holding capacity and infiltration rate into the soil profile and reduce runoff from heavy precipitation events (Figure 3)," he said. "Consequently, the soil moisture will be restored more quickly versus a pasture grazed to bare ground (Figure 4)."
According to research, ranch managers should strive for at least 50 to 60 percent organic material cover on the soil surface and at least 4 to 6-inch residual stubble height for native grasses.
Kelly quotes Wayne T Hamilton (2003) and paraphrases Dr. E.J. Dyksterhuis (1951): "The man who has a short pasture needs a rain much worse than his neighbor who has ample forage on the range. But, when the rains come, it will do the least good for the fellow who needs it most."
Although some areas of extreme southern South Dakota have been blessed with adequate precipitation so far this year, ranchers in these areas need to be thinking about drought conditions and making sure drought plans are up to date.
Resources are available to help assist developing drought plans.
"A ranch manager must be flexible and adapt to resource conditions during a drought," Kelly said. "Rangeland health and drought plans are priorities; a ranch manager must try and make other perspectives of a ranch adapt if the ranch's vision includes long-term sustainability and profitability."
Figure 3. Rangeland with adequate ground cover and residual plant heights.
Figure 4. Overgrazed rangeland with poor water holding capacity and increased runoff.
Source: South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service. Figure 1. South Dakota NRCS Drought Condition Status Map with Percent of Normal Forage Production as of June 1, 2017.
Source: National Drought Mitigation Center. Figure 2. U.S. Drought Monitor published June 8, 2017.