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Including flexible stocking strategies can provide options during dry years

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Implementing flexible stocking strategies into a management plan can have financial benefits for ranchers, according to Justin Derner, research leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service High Plains Grasslands Research Station near Cheyenne. 

Derner says, after surveying ranchers in their area, research showed that 80 percent of them were reactive. 

“We wait to do something until we have to – like reducing herd size,” he says.

Of the proactive ranchers, about half rest some of their pastures each year and half use conservative stocking rates. 

Some incorporate yearlings into their management scheme. This group has a management plan in place for weather, and about 16 percent of them use weather-making tools in their decision making, he says.

Challenge and opportunity

Derner sees drought as a challenge, but it can also be used as an opportunity. He offers five steps for capturing that opportunity.

First, Derner suggests anticipating drought with conservative stock rates, adding producers should keep in mind it can be dry within a year or just seasonally.

He also notes variability can be predicted using weather climate forecasting. A cell phone app can provide up-to-date predictions.

Derner says producers should track variability with flexible stocking rates and keep track of grass growth and cattle intake.

He also suggests that producers use the spacial variability that already exists in the landscape.

Finally, Derner suggests that producers determine what could be done to create more variability in the operation.


Derner says the ability for climatologists and meteorologists to predict the weather is becoming more accurate. With new and better technology, they can now predict seasonal forecasts three months into the future with a high probability of accuracy. 

Producers can look at the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook to predict variability. 

Longer term climatological forecasts are influenced in the Great Plains mostly by the Pacific decadal oscillation, which Derner compares to a bathtub. Depending upon whether it is cold or warm in the Pacific Ocean impacts the amount of moisture and the temperature in the Great Plains region, he says. 

There is also Atlantic decadal oscillation, he notes, but it has less influence on the Great Plains region.

Looking at the current La Niña pattern and the Pacific oscillation, weather forecasters are predicting the probability of a dry spring, Derner says. If it changes to an El Niño pattern and warm bathwater is coming off the Pacific Coast and the equator, it could mean the probability of more moisture in the Great Plains, he notes.

Another tool producers can use is Grasscast, which predicts grassland productivity for the Great Plains using historic data to predict what forage production will be based on a 30-year average. 

Incorporate flexible stocking

Derner refers to a study by Allen Torell of New Mexico State studying the financial benefits of flexible stocking rates using high quality forecasts. Torell used a model ranch in the Great Plains and 30 years of data, comparing a traditional cow/calf operation to a cow/calf-plus-yearling operation using flexible stocking rates. His data shows the flexible stocking, cow/calf-plus-yearling operation earned twice as much return over the 30-year period. 

“A lot of people would like to double their money over 30 years just by changing their management and strategy,” Derner says. 

It is possible the same land base could be used to accomplish a goal like this, Derner says. It only requires assuming some risk by thinking outside the box and the producer determining whether they could handle yearlings. 


Derner offers producers some strategies for creating flexible stocking on their ranch.

He suggests incorporating yearlings into the cow/calf operations; retaining more heifers in the fall and grazing, breeding or selling them at a later date; or purchasing dry cows at a low price, grazing them to get good gains and selling them at a higher price mid-summer.

All three strategies involve animals that could easily be relocated or liquidated in case of a drought. What is important is to develop a plan, so cows don’t have to be liquidated when grass runs short. 

“In most cases, it took years or a lifetime to develop the genetics each rancher has,” Derner explains to producers. “Find ways to create some flexibility in the operation, so the only choice isn’t selling cows when there is a drought.” 


Derner shared the results of a study started in 2014 at the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. The ranch, which is 15,500 acres, was divided into areas. One area was managed traditionally at a conservative stocking rate. For the other area, a management plan was developed and the group decided to graze eight out of 10 pastures each year, stocking them heavier and moving the cattle more often. 

Derner says, by using this management technique, they were able to conserve at least 20 percent of their pastures, and even more during wet years. 

“On a small ranch, take a piece of property and create areas of grass that can be conserved to use when it is dry to reduce risk,” he tells producers. “Use informed decision-making. Don’t think just because we have always put 80 cows on a piece of grass, we will put 80 cows on that piece of grass no matter what condition it is in.” 

“Be willing to be flexible. Don’t manage it just because that was how dad and grandpa did it,” he says.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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