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One good rain won't save drought-stricken farmers

It has been a long winter for many ranchers throughout the plains, and many have grown weary of the seemingly relentless weather. However, many have not received adequate winter and spring precipitation to sustain normal grazing pressure throughout the coming summer grazing season.

A common wishful paradigm in ranching is we're only "one good rain away" from drought recovery. More often than not, that simply isn't the case. The reality is it takes a long time and a complex series of drought-related events to lead to damaged range, and it requires an equal if not longer time and series of management decisions before we can expect full recovery of pasture carrying capacity.

While ranchers in dry areas always would welcome even a minor rain event, even a large, brief rain cannot reverse the myriad effects of a long-term drought. To maintain a robust and productive range ecology, volume of moisture, timing of moisture, sustained moisture, and timing and intensity of grazing pressure and rest periods all play a role.

The astute rancher will recognize when a little late rain amounts to "too little, too late." But effective long-term range management and an effective drought plan involve more than simply deciding sometime midsummer rain isn't coming, declaring the grazing season "over," and weaning calves early. In order to protect and maintain the range ecology during ongoing drought conditions, it is important to have critical dates marked on your calendar.

In a mixed-grass range ecology, different grasses mature at different times of the year and respond differently to moisture, temperature and grazing pressure. Ranchers who routinely maintain light or moderate grazing densities better can withstand a single year of lower than normal rainfall. However, even under moderate stocking density, multiple years of drought will lead to reduced plant populations.

The range ecology is complex, and a comprehensive drought monitoring plan will be also; however, a simple plan with timely intervention strategies is a good place to start. The Kansas Water Office (Topeka, June 2012) defines three stages of drought: (1) watch, (2) warning and (3) emergency. A watch exists when the previous three-month precipitation is less than 70 percent of normal; a warning is when the previous six-month precipitation is less than 65 percent of normal, and an emergency exists when the previous six-month precipitation is less than 60 percent of normal.

If the range is 30 percent to 40 percent behind "normal" or "optimum" for forage growth, it obviously is unlikely a few rains will provide needed recovery in the short term. So if winter precipitation was below normal, and spring rains have not made up the difference, it's time to take action by modifying stocking density. If late spring and early summer rains do not alleviate the situation, and the condition progresses further, plan to take more extreme cuts to stocking density.

Calves have the ability to thrive without their mothers, with appropriate management and nutrition, by 90 days of age. Producers should make plans for the possibility of early weaning now, not only after summer drought conditions demand it of them. The future quality and recovery of your pastures relies on your early and ongoing response to drought conditions.

For further information on drought monitoring guidelines for your geography, contact your local county Extension office. Develop a plan and stick to it. You'll be rewarded in the long run.

* Information provided by Chris Reinhardt, Extension feedlot specialist.

Stacy Campbell is agriculture

Extension agent in Ellis County.