How Extreme Drought Is Impacting Ranch Business

Jul 14, 2017

Rancher AJ Rausch can only explain managing a cattle herd in the current drought conditions one way.

"Very difficult."

Rausch is a third-generation farmer and rancher near Gettysburg.  His family has around 12 thousand acres including 300 head of cattle.  He’s already sold 15 percent of his herd and is currently feeding extra food to the remaining animals.

“We downsized a month and a half ago when we saw this coming.”

North central South Dakota has seen little moisture since March and drought conditions are getting worse.  In the last week, drought reports show 14 percent more of the state has slipped into drought conditions.  Laura Edwards is the South Dakota State Climatologist.  She says the combination of little rain, warm temperatures, and wind have kept conditions dry.

“I really would not be surprised to see some further expansion in the drought area and also increasing severity or worsening conditions in the state, especially in the north central.”

Edwards says some areas of the state have gotten less than half of their average rainfall for this time of year.  She says one reason for this summer’s weather is called a blocking patter.  That’s when high pressure systems with clear skies and warm air sit over an area while other areas stay cool and damp.  Edwards says there’s no sign this pattern will break anytime soon.

“This northern plain area has the highest likelihood than anywhere in the country to be warmer than average, so I think it’s a pretty sure thing that’s going to be happening, but coming at a really tough time.  We just can’t get over this hump and we really could use some moisture and some cooler temperatures.”

U.S. Drought Monitor July 11, 2017

A shortage of grazing grass is only one part of the problem.  The current drought will also affect next year’s production.  Heather Gessner is an SDSU Extension Livestock Business Management Field Specialist.  She says the drought conditions are already affecting future livestock production.

“We’re using up hay resources that would traditionally be used in the winter time.  So not only are we looking at what are we going to do to get through the summer and fall, but further down the road we also have to think about winter feed coming up and how we’re going to make that happen.”

During extreme drought conditions it becomes difficult to maintain traditional production techniques.  One technique is the half on half off rule.  It requires grazing half of the ground and leaving half to recover for the next year.  Sean Kelley is a Range Field Specialist for SDSU Extension.  He says overgrazing is easy to do in a drought year.

"You could possibly set that range land back an extra two or three years when the rain does return."-Sean Kelley

Kelley says leaving four to six inches of stubble height on the ground is ideal.  He also recommends leaving sixty to seventy percent ground cover.

“When the rain does return, it’s going to be able to recharge that soil profile a lot faster versus if it’s grazed down to the ground.”

In the current drought conditions it’s hard to not over graze pasture.  Heather Gessner, who advises ranchers through the extension service suggests supplemental feed for livestock this summer.

“We can supplement some either grain or cake or some cubes or something like that, even if it’s a bale of hay in one area, so that the cows are getting some of their nutrition from another source other than the pasture.”

Gessner says this summer ranchers are spending more maintaining their herds.  She says in theory ranchers are doubling their expenses.

“They’ve already bought and paid for their pasture or paid for pasture rent, and now they’re buying additional forages to feed those cows out, utilizing their traditional winter feed stock, or having to buy additional feed.  So you’re taking a lot of that feed resource that you already, in theory, paid for through your land rent or your property taxes and those types of things, and you’re having to buy it again.”

They're looking at facing financial challenges the next couple of years as they have reduced numbers of animals to sell versus normal.-Heather Gessner

Because of the drought many ranchers are selling off animals.  Downsizing herds saves money on feed and eases stress on grazing land.  But as Gessner explains, it may take years to re build herds.

“They’re looking at facing financial challenges the next couple of years as they have reduced numbers of animals to sell versus normal.  And they’re also looking at added expenses of buying hay and then when the rains do come back, because they always do eventually, we have that added stocking rate consideration.  So how are we going to re-populate our herds and the financial considerations related to that?”

When the weather doesn’t help ranchers local Farm Service Agencies can provide some relief.  After at least one percent of a county reaches extreme drought conditions producers can apply for several federal programs.  Kay Schmidt works for the Potter County Farm Service Agency.  She says more than 50 ranchers in her county have applied for one program.

“The main one we are working on right now is what they call the Livestock Forage Disaster Program or the LSP, and basically that’s to cover grazing losses due to the drought.  And what that does is it provides a per head payment based on the number of animal units that could be grazing on the land.”

There are other programs available to help ranchers with livestock deaths and water shortages as a result of the extreme drought conditions.  Schmidt encourages ranches to contact their local FSA offices to discuss what programs they qualify for.