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Flexibility plays a key role in proactive drought planning on ranches in the West

Written by Emilee Gibb

In a region of the country that averages approximately 12 inches of liquid precipitation per year, drought preparedness is an important consideration for agricultural operations in Wyoming.

University of Wyoming Extension Educator Mae Smith encourages producers to be proactive in their management approach, assessing their current operation, as well as the flexibility of their enterprise and business.

Proactive

An open source article called “Adaptive Management for Drought on Rangelands,” which was featured in the Rangelands magazine, discusses multiple strategies for drought planning, said Smith.

“They talk a lot about what managers do and can do for proactive drought planning,” she continued.

The article strongly advised producers to follow a common outline for assessing drought preparedness.

“The three things that they mention are enterprise flexibility, management flexibility and knowledge of our resources and how to use them,” explained Smith.

Enterprise

When looking at enterprise flexibility, one of the primary factors to consider is what an operation’s herd structure looks like.

Smith questioned, “What is our ratio of cow/calf pairs to stockers or heifers and steers?”

“With that ratio, how flexible are we in our enterprises if we have a really dry year? Can we liquidate some or be able to move them around?” continued Smith.

She noted that different enterprises are inherently more flexible than others.

  “With a cow/calf-pair base, we’re much less flexible, and we probably don’t want to sell our best cows off in times of drought,” she stressed. “Therefore, if we had more yearlings or stockers, we could have a lot more flexibility.”

When looking at enterprise flexibility, Smith commented that the key is to match forage availability with the operation’s forage utilization plan.

Smith said, “In good years, do we have enough animals to use up the additional forage that could be out there and in years of harder, drier times, do we have the flexibility to reduce our base a little bit?”

Management

Management flexibility is especially important in drought preparedness, and producers are encouraged to use active management, making adjustments as they get information back.

“We’re going to use our relevant data to make informed management decisions to reduce risk,” said Smith.

“By making those decisions on good data, continually looking at our operation and seeing what adjustments need to be made, we’ll be able to reduce that risk,” she continued.

Smith explained that there are three primary components of management flexibility.

“The three things they talk about for management flexibility are to be able to predict and track precipitation and forage, overall having pretty conservative stocking rates and that will allow us to go through harder times with less risk and then using inherent spatial variability,” she commented.

Stocking

Precipitation timing and forage production potential are important factors to consider in making management decisions.

“We have snow right now, but if we don’t get any more precipitation for the rest of the year, then our big precipitation at the beginning of the year may not have made much of a difference for the actual forage that our animals are eating,” explained Smith.

As such, Smith advised producers to have flexible stocking rates and to use conservative stocking rates.

“They have done a study where, if 10 to 33 percent of the operation is resting, then the producers had built-in forage insurance, so they were able to ride through those drier times,” she said.

Smith continued, “We’re going to have more resiliency in our plant communities. They’re going to bounce back from those drought situations, and we’re hopefully not going to have to sell livestock.”

Decisions

“Setting up key dates and making decisions on those key dates will help with our management flexibility,” commented Smith.

Producers are encouraged to pick a date that they will make management decisions on if they are expecting it to be a dry year.

“The timing and amount of precipitation in April to May is really critical to what that forage is going to look like through the year,” said Smith. “We may set a date of May 15 to June 1, and if we haven’t received precipitation by that time, that’s when we need to be making some decisions.”

As forage variability goes up and down, producers may be tempted to increase their herd size when there are a few years with good precipitation.

“We should probably do that slowly, so we don’t get into a situation where things could turn around really quickly and we don’t know what to do with those animals,” she concluded.

Smith spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days.

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..