Alicia Boor: How to plan for drought in the Great Plains

Hays Daily News
Alicia Boor

Drought in the Great Plains is a normal occurrence and inevitable.  Drought occurs when an area receives less than 75% normal precipitation.  Kansas is likely to have a drought 3 out of 10 years. When 2021 began, over 81% of the state was experiencing some level.   

If conditions persist, stock pond levels decline, grasses show stress, hay demand will increase, fire danger increases, and blue-green algae may affect water quality. Reduced soil moisture, high air temperatures, reduced forage production, and a change in plant composition usually occurs with drought. Other impacts from drought can include culling of livestock and reduced stocking rates, increasing weed pressure, and emotional stress to humans.  

How much impact will weather have on forage production in 2021? Grass-Cast is an experimental (https://grasscast.unl.edu/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery) grassland productivity forecast that predicts peak standing biomass for the season. It uses current weather, seasonal climate outlooks, and a model to predict total biomass for individual counties, compared to a 38-year average. In Kansas, Grass-Cast, predicts for counties in about the western half of the state. Grass-Cast Maps predict based on above normal, normal, or below normal precipitation. 

 What should a manager do or expect if dry conditions persist going into the grazing season? Hopefully, they have a drought plan. Were the pastures stocked properly or were they being overgrazed? Heavy stocking can reduce root systems, making plants more vulnerable to drought. Moderate stocking rates and good grazing distribution allows pastures to recover more quickly. Rest is important to maintain vigor of the desirable plant species.  Grazing systems incorporating more rest are apt to recover more quickly. 

What should a ranch drought plan involve? It should include what to do during drought and when. Once drought is eminent, implement the plan and stick to it. A drought plan should also include strategies for restoring plant health after the drought. Drought plans are a dynamic process and may need to be changed/adjusted to make them work. 

Drought plans generally identify critical dates and target points to implement. Each critical date should have an action plan that clearly states target points for initiating the plan. Critical dates start with prior to the grazing season, June 15, August 15, and end of the grazing season. 

Management plans to alleviate the impacts might include: 

Stock conservatively in good years. 

Cull cowherd closely when demand exceeds forage supply. 

Consider destocking or reducing stocking rate. 

Shorten breeding season. 

Wean calves early. 

Consider use of stockers and cow-calf. 

Manage livestock water supplies. 

Improve grazing distribution 

Some closing thoughts. Reduce livestock numbers rather than feed harvested forages. Use good grazing management during and after drought.  Visit online the National Drought Mitigation Center http://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan. This site has a comprehensive publication on Monitoring drought risks on the ranch. 

Alicia Boor is an Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in the Cottonwood District (which includes Barton and Ellis counties) for K-State Research and Extension. You can contact her by e-mail at aboor@ksu.edu or calling 620-793-1910.