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Extension Education: Ranchers Responding to Drought

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Thad Box, a distinguished rangeland professional, once said, “We continue to approach each new drought as if it is a disaster rather than the norm, ignoring the past and paying only lip service to sustainable use of dry rangelands.” 

I guess it should not be surprising to continue to see below average precipitation levels, but what are the impacts of drought on ranches and how do livestock producers manage them? 

In my last Extension article, we discussed preliminary results of a survey conducted to determine some Wyoming rancher’s and WSGA producer member’s goals, ranch characteristics and management practices. A new scientific paper detailing survey results is available on the Rangeland Decision-Making Project website at  To add breadth to the study, California ranchers and members of the California Cattleman’s Association were also surveyed using the same questionnaire.

This time of year many of us are focused on precipitation levels, and according to the NRCS Wyoming Basin Outlook Report, as of March 1 the snow water equivalent across Wyoming is below normal at 85 percent. The NOAA seasonal drought outlook predicts persistent or increasing drought in much of Wyoming. The dry warm weather leaves us wondering if we are indeed in for another dry growing season. 

State differences

With this focus on drought, below are findings from both the Wyoming and California studies. 

To begin, it is important to consider major differences between the rangeland systems in which California and Wyoming ranchers work. 

Wyoming’s landscapes are largely perennial grasslands and shrub lands while California rangelands are generally annual grasslands. As you can imagine, managing annual grasses that germinate, grow and die each year can be much different than the perennial grasses that many of us in Wyoming are more accustomed to. For Wyoming rangelands, the beneficial period to receive precipitation is during the spring months, whereas California precipitation is largely received in the winter. 

Thankfully, we have less of an issue than California with invasive species dominating the landscape, particularly species not palatable to livestock.

Ranching operations also differ between the two states. 

Wyoming ranches are generally larger than those in California, have more livestock, use a rotational grazing system, and have other activities occurring on their land. California ranches are smaller, less than half use rotational grazing and about half had other activities on their land. 

It is fairly intuitive that many of the ranch characteristics are different, but what about the way ranchers make decisions in these two very different places? 

Many of the management goals held by both Wyoming and California ranchers actually mirror one another. Wyoming and California ranchers’ top goals are livestock and forage production, followed by many ecological aspects like soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat and weed management. 

Drought impacts

Given the differences in ranch characteristics, you might expect to see differences in drought impacts between the states. 

Ranchers were asked, “During the last drought, which of the following were impacted more severely than expected?” Interestingly, responses were very similar between the two states. The top three impacts were grazing capacity – not surprising given the effects of drought on forage production and that aspect being a top goal – profit and winter feed.   

Ranchers were asked about two broad categories of drought management: preparation prior to drought and responses to drought. 

Many argue that a more pro-active approach, preparing for drought before it actually happens, is the best strategy. Overall, ranchers in Wyoming and California were proactive, although Wyoming respondents were more proactive, with Wyoming at 81 percent and California at 64 percent. 

One reason for this goes back to the quote at the beginning of this article. Wyoming is actually located in one of the most drought-prone areas of the United States – the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. Livestock producers in Wyoming understand drought and the importance of planning for it. In fact, a majority of Wyoming respondents either had a drought management plan in place or were working on one. 

Although Wyoming ranchers are more proactive, the main drought preparation strategies were similar. Ranchers in both states reported they prepare by saving grass in case of drought. This was accomplished by either employing a conservative stocking rate or by resting pastures. 

Drought response

Ranchers were also asked how they respond to drought. Everyone in both states – 100 percent of respondents – responded to drought, and the major strategies for responding were again broadly similar between the two states. The strategies were either reducing herd size or weaning early to reduce the demand for inputs to the operation. 

Another strategy was to find additional feed by either buying feed or renting additional pasture elsewhere.  Also worth mentioning are the market risks associated with drought, as many people are attempting the same strategies in buying hay and selling cows. 

The fact that both Wyoming and California ranchers have these as their main strategies could impact prices, especially during a multi-region drought like the one in 2012. It can be difficult to balance supply and demand when forage supply is so variable from year to year. 

Moving forward

Finally, due to the frequency of drought in rangeland climates, ranchers were asked whether drought would be more influential in ranchers’ management plans in the next 10 years than it has been in the last 10 years. 

Over 40 percent of ranchers from both Wyoming and California responded yes. This again indicates the knowledge and awareness of the importance of a drought management plan.

So, as our spring months quickly pass by, it is important to continue monitoring precipitation amounts throughout March, April and May. Once we know our precipitation levels, it is astute to begin making decisions about grazing strategies for this year and, if need be, begin putting drought plans into action.

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