Planning For and Recovering From Drought

The start of the grazing season is just a few months away. With dry conditions dominating the growing season last year, a lot rests on how much rain we get this spring.  Snow this winter has helped, but with winter precipitation making up less than 10% of the moisture typically received in a year, spring and early summer moisture is key. While we can’t ever know for sure what Mother Nature has in store, we can do our best to plan ahead and be prepared if the worst case scenario does occur.

As we prepare grazing plans for the upcoming year, having a strategy for drought is essential.  Drought plans can have different levels of detail and complexity and should be customized to fit the needs of your specific operation.  Key considerations should include projected cattle numbers (or stocking rates), turnout dates, the possibility of an extended period of hay feeding, the level of utilization on pastures last year, possible culling and weaning strategies, and a pasture use sequence for multiple pasture rotations.  In addition, some farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to use planted annual forages to increase grazing capacity or to provide extra hay.  Sourcing seed for this possibility should begin soon.

Some plans place an emphasis on critical or trigger dates.  These are dates where one evaluates their total local precipitation up to that date.  On May 1, for example, one could determine their total spring precipitation and compare that to long-term averages for their area.  If precipitation totals are significantly below the averages, that could trigger a choice of several possible management actions such as an extended period of feeding hay or culling of some livestock.  Remember that no two drought plans are exactly alike and should consider an individual operation’s resources and local conditions.

One final thing to take into consideration when planning for drought is pasture recovery.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts, dry conditions mean we have to push pasture condition further than we’d normally prefer. When overgrazing like this happens, pasture health and productivity can suffer for multiple years as plants build back strength and vigor to previous levels. 

Keep this in mind if your pastures were grazed a bit hard last year, even if rain returns this spring.  Productivity after overgrazing will be reduced, so ideally stocking rate should be too.  If we push a recovering pasture too hard, we are likely to overgraze again, future reducing production and providing an opportunity for invasive weeds to establish, both of which will cost us in the long run.

While we always hope for the right amount of rain during the growing season, being prepared for dry weather can help limit drought impacts and make hard decisions easier in the heat of the moment.  Take some time now to make sure your drought and recovery plan is ready for 2023.  Hopefully we won’t have to use it, but if we do, you won’t regret having it prepared.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: