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Prepare for Drought With Regenerative Ag Mindset

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Drought is a natural and regular event in grazing lands. A drought is a period of time when an area or region experiences below-normal precipitation. The lack of adequate precipitation can cause reduced soil moisture or groundwater, diminished stream flow, crop damage, and a general water shortage. For livestock producers and managers of grazing lands, this means lower forage production and potential livestock water shortages.

In terms of climate, we experience alternating periods of dry and wet weather. The southern Great Plains in particular has experienced a favorable wet period over the last few years. However, meteorologists are now saying weather patterns are changing and the long-range forecast predicts drier conditions ahead, perhaps for the next few years.

Drought Map Graphic 23% of the US land area is experiencing drought. 39.7 million people are experiencing drought. 25% approximate percentage of cattle inventory within an area experiencing drought.The map shows the overlap of the parts of the Continental U.S. experiencing drought, along with counties that produce a large amount of cattle, and which cattle producing counties are specifically experiencing drought.

Drought Resilience With Regenerative Ag

In observing producers implementing regenerative agricultural practices, we find a unique mindset toward drought. We find producers who routinely manage operations proactively, meaning they operate in relation with the weather conditions. They manage anticipating drought long before it occurs. These producers usually have contingency plans in place to nimbly deviate from their “ideal” management plan and adapt to unfavorable weather patterns.

As a bonus, producers practicing regenerative agriculture and grazing typically manage through droughts more easily with fewer adverse impacts on their land and profitability. Their grazing lands also recover more rapidly than other lands, where regenerative grazing is not routinely practiced.

Bar Chart showing Percentage of Cattle Affected by Drought in the Great Plains. As of July 14. Source: USDA Agricultural Weather Assessments; U.S. Drought Monitor

Build Organic Matter

The successful long-term application of regenerative agriculture and regenerative grazing results in improvements in the soil and plant communities that make the soils more resilient and drought tolerant.

Managing soils regeneratively results in the building of organic matter above, at and below the soil surface. Regenerative grazing complements the soil health principles but only because the grazing is managed in a way that matches stock numbers to forage biomass, manages for short grazing periods, uses moderate grazing during the active growing season, leaves adequate plant cover after each grazing event, and follows each grazing event with adequate planned recovery. Over time, soil organic matter, soil health and water holding capacity improves. Pastures become more productive, vigorous, and more resilient during drought (and floods).

Manage Pastures With Livestock, Not For Livestock

Regenerative graziers actually manage their pastures and forage inventories with livestock instead of their pastures for livestock — pasture and grazing management are the priorities. There is a distinction here that indicates a different, forward-thinking mindset.

The distinct advantage regenerative grazing producers have over other livestock producers is they are prepared to adjust stocking rates with forage availability and growing conditions. At the onset of drought, they begin adjusting their management plan and stock numbers based on preset criteria and triggers outlined in a drought contingency plan. They actively monitor both moisture conditions and forage production, and then they adjust stock numbers to reflect actual conditions. Regenerative producers are both mentally and logistically prepared to make sound, proactive management decisions for the short- and long-term benefit of the land resource and ranching operation when droughts occur.

Have a Plan

As stated earlier, meteorologists have begun providing evidence that the favorable precipitation patterns are now changing, shifting to what is expected to be a drier period. Producers practicing regenerative grazing for many years are monitoring their forage production now and know the capabilities of their pastures to withstand short- or long-term dry spells. They are prepared to implement drought plans to protect the land resource when severe drought sets in. They have managed their pastures and stocking rate proactively and are accustomed to balancing livestock demand to forage production. As a result, their grazing lands are more resilient with improved soil health and soil organic matter, increased water holding capacity, and enhanced forage production capabilities. Rainfall that occurs during a drought is more effective.

Once drought breaks and favorable precipitation patterns return, these grazing lands that have been managed according to the soil health principles and regenerative grazing will respond much more readily to rainfall events with little or no evidence of adverse effects from the drought. The mindset of a producer practicing regenerative grazing is certainly better prepared for drought.

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.