|Drought monitor report for the week of June 27, from the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln.|
Abnormally dry conditions in central Nebraska
Mitchell Stephenson, Range and Forage Management Specialist, Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff
Recent changes in the UNL Drought Monitor reflect what many producers in the central Sandhills have begun to see on their rangelands.
While most areas in Nebraska are not seeing the moderate to severe drought conditions that our neighbors in the Dakotas are experiencing, the threat of drought is still concerning for Nebraska when looking at the predictions for above-average temperatures for the rest of the growing season from the Climate Prediction Center (www.cpc.noaa.gov).
|A comparison of accumulated precipitation at the Gudmundsen Sandhills Laboratory. The blue line is the long-term average, the red line is 2017, and the orange line is the severe drought year of 2012.|
Ranchers cannot control whether conditions get worse. But they can lessen the blow of a potential drought by giving some advance thought to strategies such as trigger dates, contingency plans, or reserve forage resources.
Importance of spring precipitation
Spring precipitation plays a crucial role in determining the amount of forage produced in many areas of Nebraska. Precipitation in the early spring at the UNL Gudmundsen Sandhills Lab (GSL) near Whitman was near the long-term average, but conditions have become drier, with precipitation in June at only 0.2 inches. Normal precipitation in June for this area is 3.4 to 3.7 inches.
The accompanying graphics illustrate current conditions. The map from the National Drought Mitigation Center indicates an abnormally dry area in north-central Nebraska, and the line graph shows that 2017 precipitation has fallen below normal and might be trending toward levels seen in 2012, one of the driest year in the recent past.
Because of the abundance of warm-season grasses in the Sandhills, early summer precipitation is important in determining the amount of forage produced. Most warm-season species are just beginning their growth in the middle part of June and, unless we see some precipitation in the next few weeks, ranchers might need to think about options for conserving available forage or finding other forage options for later in the summer.
If dry conditions persist into July, grasses will usually not respond with a high degree of growth, even if we get precipitation later into the summer.
Drought of 2012
Many people still remember the dry conditions in 2012, when precipitation was below average from May through the growing season. In most areas of the Sandhills, production on warm-season grasses was well below what was typical. Production of warm-season grasses in 2012 at GSL were only 63 percent of average.
The dry conditions in 2012 also had a residual negative influence on production of grasses during the following year. Grass production in 2013 was only half of the longer-term average, even with precipitation that was close to normal in that year.
Warm-season grass production at GSL has steadily increased every year since the drought in 2012 to levels closer to the longer-term average.
This shows the importance of including a multi-year recovery strategy in a drought plan to ensure that rangelands are given opportunities to recover to pre-drought levels.
While drought is unavoidable, management of grazing may help reduce the negative effects drought and heavy grazing pressure to desirable species composition and forage production on rangelands.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This was the reported response from heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson when asked about his plans for an upcoming fight. Planning for drought can feel the same when the drought actually hits and some of the best-laid plans fall apart. However, having trigger dates, contingency plans, or reserve forage resources can lessen the blow of the drought.
Trigger dates are predetermined times of the year when decisions should be made for drought management. With the dry conditions in June, July 1 to July 15 may be good dates to start deciding if contingency plans should be employed if no new precipitation is gained.
Contingency plans that are often used include reducing cattle numbers by selling cull or extra cattle, planning to early wean, or finding extra forage or feed resource.
Selling cattle is a difficult option, but it is one of the most direct ways to relieve heavy grazing pressure from drought stricken pastures.
Early weaning will reduce the feed intake requirements of the cow and help in reducing the forage demand of the cow herd.
Feeding hay may not be a long-term solution to drought in all situations, but with current prices of hay or distillers grains in Nebraska, there may be options to dry-lot some cattle for a period to keep cattle on the ranch and not have to truck cattle to find forage.
Lastly, having some forage as a drought reserve every year can help provide greater management options when droughts occur.
The University of Nebraska has many resources available for drought management information. For more information, please see either website below or contact your local UNL Extension office.