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DROUGHT: Regular Occurrence in our Business

Posted Jun. 30, 1998

However, it is not typically as severe as we have seen over the past three years. Following are graphs of the monthly precipitation for each year since 1994 for Ardmore, Oklahoma:


As you can see, 1994 was the last "normal" year we have seen. In 1995, we had a good spring followed by a dry fall. 1996 brought us a dry spring and summer followed by a wet fall, and 1997 gave us a dry summer and fall. Thus far, 1998 has given us a dry spring and what may be a dry summer as well if it hasn't rained by the time you read this article! Stan Parsons once defined drought as "slow plant growth when you expect fast growth" or "no growth when you expect slow growth." Many of us definitely experienced "slow plant growth" in April and early May and moved to "no growth" in late May. From April 1 through May 31, we received less than 15% of our expected rainfall for these months.

This presently puts most of us in a very uncomfortable situation. The good news is that cattle prices are good relative to the prices encountered in 1995-96. Also, the drought is somewhat localized in Southern Oklahoma and Texas with many areas of the country seeing normal if not excessive levels of precipitation. However, Southern Oklahoma and Texas contain a large number of cattle. If we do not see significant moisture soon, we could impact the market with excessive sales of livestock and/or see a larger number of stockers moving to the feedlots.

I know you have heard this before, but approximately 75% of the warm-season forage we grow is produced by July 15. Even if we experience a wetter than normal July and August, plants are no longer vegetative and have moved into their reproductive phase due to the change in daylength after June 21. Therefore, late June or early July should be an optimum time to monitor your forages and make carrying capacity calculations for the remainder of the year.

Hindsight is always "20/20," but droughts should be considered normal in our business. They will occur either regionally or locally, and they cannot be avoided. Therefore, it is essential for you to make plans well in advance of their occurrence. If you do, you will be a minority of the population and will be able to take advantage of what is normally a crisis situation for most producers. Following is a list of strategies for you to consider to avoid a crisis due to drought.

  • Adjust your stocking rate to the carrying capacity of dry years and take advantage of favorable years with alternative enterprises retained ownership, stockers, etc.
  • Know your seasonal forage flow and be prepared to adjust your stock flow accordingly.
  • Plan for water availability. Ensure access to large water reservoirs or well water if possible. Graze areas with limited water reserves first.
  • Add additional fencing. Permanent or temporary crossfences increase the number of paddocks, thus increasing your ability to effectively control the graze and rest periods.
  • Lengthen rest periods during slow or no growth. Plants can withstand severe grazing if followed by proper rest periods, during which time the plants replenish tissues above and below ground.
  • Know your critical dates for rainfall and for forage growth. These dates coincide with seasonal temperatures and day length that directly affect the forage flow of the forage types.
  • Have animals selected, in advance, to sell. Establish 'levels' of culling or dispersal: i.e. 1st level open cows, 2nd level low or poor producers, 3rd level growing stock and large calves, 4th level old cows and non-conformers, etc.
  • Consider early weaning to avoid poor conceptions the following year. During drought conditions, forages decline rapidly in quantity and quality. By weaning calves before the end of the breeding season, you effectively decrease the cows' nutrient requirements by 50%, which could mean the difference between rebreeding or not.
  • Plan, monitor, and replan. Establish a forage/grazing plan or calendar that outlines expected seasonal forage production. Monitor utilization, production and rainfall. Compare expected production with historical records, relative to rainfall, to current figures. Make adjustments as needed.
  • Do not drought feed unless you have a very good reason!!! This recommendation often falls on deaf ears. In that case, remember it is usually more cost efficient to move cattle to a location with abundant forage than it is to have the forage shipped into a drought-stricken area.