We lived through a significant drought in 2006. Some much-needed winter precipitation has lessened our fears, but some forecasts still call for drier than "normal" weather starting in May. Normal? Who knows what "normal" is? We've been surviving drought, at least seasonally, since 1995. I moved to Oklahoma in 1986, and, from then until 1994, all it did was rain. Producers had abundant forage and hay was cheap. So was fertilizer, compared to today's prices. As a result, stocking rates were increased.
I now believe that the period from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s was unseasonably wet. Look at Figure 1, which shows the total annual rainfall trends in south-central Oklahoma from the late 1800s through 2006.
I think the graph paints a pretty bleak picture. Look how wet we were during the period outlined in red. Then think about what's to come next...
Figure 2 is similar, but looks at spring (March-May) rainfall trends. This figure shows the drought starting in 1996, when we had our first dry spring following a dry fall in 1995. The good news is that spring rainfall should begin to improve in the near future. The bad news is that annual rainfall may still be declining. Do not base your stocking rates on the wet years from 1980 through 1994. Stock conservatively, continue to rest pastures seasonally, and be happy if you produce more forage than you have cows to eat it! Cow condition, conception rates and weaning weights will improve if you are conservatively stocked.
Following is a list of strategies, published by Hugh Aljoe and me nearly 10 years ago, that you should consider to avoid a crisis due to drought.
Thanks to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey for providing the figures used in this article. Their Web site is at www.ocs.ou.edu.