Implementing the Drought Plan

by Dallas Mount

A good chunk of cow country is experiencing a dry time. If you are Ranching for Profit you had your drought plan done before spring arrived. That drought plan included key dates with specific actions tied to those dates, it was written down, and shared with others on your team who held you accountable to this plan. Many of our clients have already been implementing their drought plans. They still have feed on hand as their neighbors are starting to stress over finding feed for their animals. Bud Williams talked about managing the three inventories of grass, money, and livestock. When in drought it is a powerful spot to be when you have grass in the pasture and money in the bank. Opportunities are sure to arise.  

Let’s review some of the principles of drought management:

Identify critical precipitation dates – These are the dates on your ranch to hold management accountable to evaluating precipitation status. Write these dates down and tie them to drought response actions. Otherwise you’ll tell yourself an optimistic story that will delay needed actions.

Destocking plans – There is no way around it. Reducing stocking rate (forage demand) is the proper way to respond to drought. Destocking the ranch is a different decision from selling animals. Finding feed to send the animals to, can be a reasonable response but it deserves a diligent economic vetting. Your drought plan should identify which class of animals will be the first to go as drought progresses. Taking action early will result in grass savings later.

Develop a stocking strategy relative to drought risk – The classes of livestock should be mixed between a “flex” herd and a “keeper” herd. The higher your drought risk the larger percentage should be in the “flex” herd. Heck, as I write this I almost cringe as I write “keeper” herd. In reality, shouldn’t all the animals be for sale any day of the year? Having the mindset of a “keeper” herd is probably not a healthy way to think about our livestock. But one thing is sure, having too many animals that we are emotionally attached to clouds our decision making in the face of drought. On most ranches, at least 40% of the annual carrying capacity of your ranch should be in a class of animal that can easily be destocked when conditions warrant.

The people side of drought – Drought is normal. In fact, “normal” precipitation is below average. There are more years on the left side of the average mark than there are years on the right side of the average mark. Develop your team that they expect droughts as a part of doing business. Develop cash reserves and income streams that are not reliant on precipitation to fall on your ranch. Destocking should create time and space to develop ourselves through training or allow the pursuit of other passions. Take care of yourself and those you are close to. Mental health in rural communities is something we don’t take seriously enough. Drought and markets put enormous stress on those who play the role of provider. Developing networks and support structures are key to helping each other through the tough times. A few words of support and reminding each other what is most important in life is key. After all, ranches and livestock are just stuff. The Australian poet Murray Hartin describes the stress and thought process well in this moving piece Rain From Nowhere:  

There is certainly more to preparing for and managing through drought than I have presented here. The key is to not get bogged down and let no decision become the default. Ranching might be too easy if it always rained.

One Response to “Implementing the Drought Plan”

July 10, 2020 at 5:50 am, Shanon Sims said:

Back in the High Plains Ranch Practicum days Dallas and Aaron shared a data set from Lingle, WY showing a 10 fold decrease in forage production between a normal year and a drought year. During that same drought most ranches destocked by half. I wonder if that means those ranches took twice as long to recover from the drought? Or did they even recover before the next drought?


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