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Planning for drought in rain promotes future success

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One of the most meaningful quotes from college came from Wayne Hamilton, a range management professor at Texas A&M University. He said, "The time to plan for a drought is when it's raining, and the time to plan for rain is during a drought." I can truly appreciate these words of wisdom more today than ever in my career having the recent experiences of both drought (in 2011 and 2012) and surplus rain (flooding) in the spring of 2015. This leads to the questions of "Are we still in a drought or long-term dry spell?" and "Should we be planning for drought or rain?" The short answers to those questions are "Yes," and "Both drought long-term and good moisture conditions short-term."

If you as a producer living in the Southern Great Plains take any stock into the climate and weather predictions, you are aware of the El Nino/La Nina phenomenon and its effect on our region. We are currently experiencing an El Nino effect, which means our region typically receives above-average rainfall. Many producers in Oklahoma and Texas received their expected yearly rainfall in two months (May and June) this year. It has been a very moist first half of the year, providing much needed recovery of deep soil moisture and pond/lake water. However, due to the excessive rainfall amounts, many producers were not able to benefit in forage production. Although there was abundant rain in the spring, it did not equate to surplus forage. The good news is El Nino conditions are projected to remain with us through the remainder of the year. There is still a lot of the growing season left to provide recovery from the drought years and build reserves headed into the fall and winter.

There are several management practices that can be implemented to ensure pasture recovery and additional reserves. To enhance native range pastures, defer cattle grazing on these pastures from now until after frost allowing them to stockpile forage to be used as standing hay and to improve plant vigor of the desirable native plants. Introduced pastures can be fertilized in August or early September ahead of a rain event to increase stand vigor, forage production and quality. This is true for both warm-season grasses (bermudagrass, Plains and B-Dahl bluestems, kleingrass, etc.) and cool-season grasses (fescue). Stockpiled bermudagrass, fall fertilized and left ungrazed until frost, can provide abundant high-quality forage as standing hay for several months in late fall and early winter. If moisture comes early in August, fertilizing for an additional hay crop is another option to build an additional reserve. Winter pasture established in the early fall using small grains or a forage cropping mixture can provide abundant high-quality grazing for rapid weight gain on growing and poor-conditioned cattle. Regardless of what your need(s) may be for your operation, planning is required to achieve successful outcomes. Early August is the perfect time to plan your fall forage management, especially in a year when El Nino is providing favorable moisture conditions.

A producer with abundant grass at the end of the year has options build reserves, market surplus for grazing or hay, retain all or a portion of the calf crop, or increase the stock rate. However, I would be careful to increase the stocking rate as the long-term climate predictors still say we are in a long-term dry spell. The recovery our pastures have experienced in 2015 will be of greater benefit in the years to come. Therefore, through planning and good management, achieve the greatest amount of recovery possible this season and obtain the added benefit of a forage reserve this winter and perhaps beyond. As I would expect Mr. Hamilton to say, "Plan now for both drought and rain."

Hugh Aljoe serves as the director of producer relations (consultation and ranch management) and a pasture and range consultant. He has been associated with Noble Research Institute since 1995. Prior to coming to Noble, he managed a 3,000-acre 1,500-head cattle operation in Texas. Hugh received his master’s degree in range science from Texas A&M University with emphasis in grazing management.