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KBHB Ag News
Time to Revisit Drought Plans for the Ranch
SD AG Connection - April 12, 2017

UNDATED - In light of the dry range conditions forecast for much of central and western South Dakota, cattle producers are encouraged to review their drought management plans.

"Recently released grass production estimates show dry conditions spreading across areas of central and western South Dakota," said Sean Kelly, SDSU Extension Range Management Field Specialist.

The maps Kelly references are updated each month by the South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

"The next three months are a critical period for precipitation and grassland production," Kelly explained. "Areas in central South Dakota that were not in drought conditions last year, are experiencing dry conditions right now. Producers depending on grass and forage in those regions, need to pay close attention to precipitation and grass conditions and make sure a drought plan with management actions is in place to reduce stocking rates if dry conditions persist."

Kelly encouraged those cattle and forage producers entering their second season of drought conditions to continue with management actions taken last season and make necessary adjustments to this year's drought plan if dry conditions persist.

To help with developing a drought management plan for the 2017 grazing season, Kelly outlines tools cattle producers and range managers can reference.

This is an excellent place to start if your ranch does not have a drought plan in place.

The drought tool is an easy-to-use tool that Kelly said gives a ranch manager an estimate of precipitation records and projected forage production for the area of South Dakota their ranch lies on.

"If a ranch has its own precipitation records, a manager can input them into the drought tool for a more accurate assessment for their ranch," Kelly said.

Trigger dates are also vitally important for an effective drought plan.

The first trigger date is based on growing conditions from the previous year.

"For example, much of western South Dakota was experiencing drought conditions last year (Figure 5), therefore average precipitation will not be enough to recharge soil moisture this year," Kelly explained. "Above normal rainfall will be needed to bring that soil moisture back to normal. So many ranchers affected by drought last year are already implementing management actions for this year such as adjusting stocking rates and culling cows."

Kelly added that cattle producers in central South Dakota who had normal precipitation last year need to keep a very close eye on precipitation and grass conditions for the rest of this spring. "Producers in these areas need to have a drought management action plan in place if dry conditions persist and a reduction in livestock numbers is needed," Kelly said.

"The second important trigger date is around April 15," Kelly said. "Up to this date we can assess how much dormant season moisture we received from October thru March and we can assess the precipitation forecast estimates for the rest of the spring."

To further explain this point, Kelly quotes Roger Gates, former SDSU Extension Rangeland Management Specialist. "In the Northern Plains, where rangelands are dominated by cool-season grasses, spring precipitation - April, May and June - the best single predictor of vegetation production for the entire growing season," Gates said. "By mid-April climate prediction models for spring rainfall are correct more often than not. If rainfall forecast predictions are below normal for the next three months reductions in livestock numbers should be made."

"This reinforces the fact that cattle operations in areas with normal precipitation last year, do need to start thinking about how they can reduce their livestock numbers and have a plan in place, if the precipitation outlook for the rest of this spring is below normal," Kelly said.

May 15 is third trigger date: Roughly May 15 is another trigger date Kelly encouraged cattle and forage producers to be aware of. "If conditions are still dry by May 15, it becomes increasingly difficult to get enough precipitation to maintain average soil moisture for the remainder of the growing season. Further reduction in livestock numbers may need to happen," he said.

Precipitation Reassessment: Research shows that by July 1, 75 percent to 90 percent of vegetation growth is complete - making reassessment of precipitation and moisture conditions should be done again around June 15. "If dry conditions persist, more management actions will need to be implemented," Kelly said.



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