Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Open winter and below average spring rains could produce drought

Most of the tri-state region falls within the semi-arid climate type, characterized by short grass or scrub vegetation and annual precipitation of 400-500mm (7-19 inches). The area south of Kimball, Neb. is typical. Native vegetation is true shortgrass prairie, not the mixed-grass prairie of the rest of the Panhandle or the mixed- and tall-grass prairies of the rest of the state. Annual precipitation in the area has averages, since 1893, 16.8 inches.

In this particular usage, the term average means that half the time annual precipitation is more than average, and half the time it is less than average. Some years feature much more rain than average, and we’ve just experienced a string of above-average rainfall years. Some years feature much less rain, such as in 2002, when precipitation totaled 4.7 inches for the year.

We’ll talk specifically about native grasslands in this piece. After all, more than half of the total area of Nebraska is grassland, and most of it is harvested by cattle. The same holds true for Colorado and Wyoming.

As of May 22, the Panhandle of Nebraska had received only 52 percent of normal precipitation since January 1, and only 73 percent of normal precipitation since September 1, 2011.

As a region, the Panhandle of Nebraska and the surrounding areas of northeast Colorado and southeast Wyoming receive the bulk of their annual precipitation in the spring and summer, May-September. Thus far the typical spring rains haven’t materialized, and this raises concerns about a potential drought.

According to Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator for Kimball, Banner and Cheyenne Counties, cattle producers should prepare for drought conditions this year. The combined shortfall of precipitation since September, coupled with a warm, open winter, have depleted soil moisture profiles, he said, and forecasters are calling for above normal temperatures in the coming months.

Calves scamper in play across the smooth brome of a reintroduced rangeland. This grass will grow little taller unless timely spring rains materialize.
The prediction for spring and summer precipitation is presently a wash. Forecasters say that depending on the El Nino pattern’s effect on the jet stream, our region may receive below-normal, normal, or above-normal precipitation.

According to Berger, it is prudent for ranchers to plan for drought conditions, and be prepared to take a number of steps to mitigate the impact of drought on their operations.

The steps include:

  • Delayed livestock turnout to allow maximal grass biomass production before grazing.

  • Begin to implement a drought management plan and set conservative stocking rates to protect pasture and rangeland from overgrazing. Stocking rates can be increased if adequate precipitation materializes.

  • Identify cattle which can be culled, fed for slaughter, or moved to better range/pasture conditions. If timely rains develop, these cattle can be grazed as usual. If drought becomes established, however, having a preexisting drought mitigation plan in place will make decision making much easier when the time comes.
  • Begin to stockpile feed resources which will be needed later in the event of drought. Contract early to graze cornstalks before drought causes a frantic rush for feed resources. Consider purchasing wheat straw and/or corn stover to augment rations and maintain herd body condition.
  • Consider planting dryland forages to augment feed reserves.
  • Be prepared to early-wean calves. Early weaning will significantly reduce cow nutrient requirements. Properly handled with quality feed, calves can be weaned at 100 days or sooner.
Facing drought conditions is an all-too-common challenge for livestock producers in a semi-arid climate. Having a drought plan in place, and more importantly, being prepared to execute the plan in a timely and situationally-appropriate fashion can sometimes make the difference between survival and failure.

A baby antelope peers from his bed in lush green needle grass near Kimball, Neb. in May, 2010. Plentiful spring rains produced a bumper-crop of nutritious grass that spring.

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