Preparing for Drought

Last month the NOAA issued their latest news on the winter forecast: La NiƱa is here and for large parts of the south, it is expected to be drier and warmer than average. This isn’t good news for those who are already suffering from drought, especially in the southwest and parts of west Texas. For many they are already implemented and prepared for drought and are working through their strategies. We have developed a drought strategy that we implemented in April and ended in late August. We’ll discuss how we made our drought strategy, the tools we use to prepare, and short-term vs long-term outlooks.

Precipitation

It makes sense that the marker for whether or not you’re in a drought is rainfall and snowfall. The amount of water will dictate what plants are able to grow and what species over time will adapt to lower water conditions. Tracking precipitation is a key feature of the grazing chart we use to track the sheep’s movements across the land. You can find your precipitation averages for your area here.

With this knowledge of rainfall, you can also look up your general vegetation habitats. Abilene for instance is part of the Rolling Plains region, a region historically dominated by grasslands, but now is punctured with heavy mesquite trees and non-native species raised for crops and pasture such as bermudagrass. The area is dominated by wheat, sorghum, and cotton for agriculture and cows as the dominant livestock.

We chose to keep our field as a native-grass system, which is more resistant to drought due to the evolutionary history of the various grass species. Their long root system not only helps them obtain moisture deep in the soil, but when it does rain, helps mitigate erosion by keeping it in place. We also are not using irrigation for the field nor do we have the equipment (or finance) to do so. So for us, we’re reliant upon the rains, want to keep as much soil moisture as possible, and try to grow some crops small-scale to provide small supplementation.

As you think about your field, ask yourself:

  • What is the ecology like in your region? Are you grassland, forests, mixture? Temperature, tropical, maritime, etc?
  • Do you have a native grass field or introduced/managed grass field such as bermudagrass?
  • Do you rely completely on rainfall or can you do irrigation?
  • What kinds of crops, grasses, and forage can grow in your region?
  • Are you able to harvest hay/crops on your own? Could you partner with a neighbor to harvest hay/crops?

Obtaining and Storing Feedstuff

Having some feedstuff, usually hay, on hand is a good idea even in good times. A sheep may need to be separated if they’re sick and so given food and other nutrition until they’re better. For a drought, preparation is better sooner rather than later. But if you want to store some feed how much should you store? What kind of feed? How long is it good for? The answers are going to vary significantly based on your herd, environment, storage space, etc.

The first part is your herd, how many sheep do you have? What basic nutrition would they need? We covered this a bit in our other post talking about supplementing a sheep’s diet. The key from that is knowing how to read the tables for amount of energy you need to meet day-to-day living. Once you know that, you’ll have to think about what to buy, what and where to store, and keeping inventory up-to-date.

Check your local feedstores by calling or going in, write down prices, shop and compare. Corn is a valuable feedstuff that is widely available, but consider alternatives that may be lower in price (given the locality) such as sorghum, oats, and wheat grain. Check your local Craigslists and Facebook groups for local hay farmers, they may be willing to sell you a bale or even deliver.

When you have an idea of what you might want to buy and how much, next comes storage. The ability to keep feed and hay out of the weather is crucial. If left outside in full weather, large, round bales of hay will deteriorate slower than square, small bales of hay due to their massive volume, but both are best kept under a roof out of the rain. Do you have a structure, shelter, or barn to store food? If not, you can buy tarps to help extend the life of your hay and grass stuff.

Bags of feed commonly come in 50-lb bags if bought at the feedstore, which does allow for easier stacking under a shelter or even in your garage. Buying in bulk is generally cheaper, but if you don’t have the storage facilities (such as a grain silo on the extreme end), then weigh the cost advantages and disadvantages and what you’re able to do now versus later. Further pests have to be considered, monitored, and dealt with as they arise. Last thing you want to find is legions of mice eating all your grain!

Here at Amestris Mars ranch, we don’t have a facility to store round bales, so we have to utilize a tarp covering. Square bales are kept in a spare stall in the barn to serve as “insurance”. Since these small bales are kept best out of the weather, they are used last. Grains are kept under the roof too, and we have mouse traps set up in order to keep them at a manageable level (we recognize that we’ll never eliminate them 100%).

Questions to think about:

  • How many sheep (or other livestock) do you have?
  • How much do they weigh each and herd weight total?
  • How much energy do they need per day on average?
  • How much nutrition do pregnant sheep need?
  • What kind of feed is commonly available in your area?
  • Where can you keep your feed out of the weather?
  • If you can’t keep it out of the weather completely, what can you do to minimize weather deterioration (tarps, lean-tos, under trees, etc)?
  • How will you minimize pests such as mice and rats, insects, wild birds, etc.?

Grazing Changes

When you have an idea of the ecology, rains and snows, and can pull the sheep off the field now you can consider your field. In addition to considering the rainfall patterns, another major reason for pulling sheep on or off the field is all about grazing management. Sheep ideally should be grazing on forage at least 3 to 4 inches high or taller. Parasites are commonly found in the lower grass due to more moisture.

Easiest way to determine height is to go out with a ruler. As seen in the pictures above and below, checking the height is useful as the variation can be quite significant! Check the lower-growing areas and see how high they are in several locations. Note the date, height, and location and recheck on it a few weeks later to get an idea how fast it’s growing. Naturally with adequate rain, good sunshine, the forage will grow faster. And less rain, less sunshine, cooler weather, it’ll grow slower, especially in winter where it can stop if you’re further north.

A lot of when to graze is highly dependent on your location. Here the rains are most frequent in spring and fall. During summer it’s supposed to rain, key word: supposed…And in April 2020 we had capped off an excellent above-average rainy spring. Then proceeded into a drought-ish summer with extremely high temperatures above 105F at times and little rain. We keep the sheep in the pens on any day that reaches 105F and supplement them with stored feed. It’s simply too hot and the plants in the field are already stressed from the heat, they don’t need more stress from sheep eating them. On top of that we stopped letting them in the field on the weekend, giving the field a 2 day “rest”. We had our drought strategy prepared and months worth of feed stored ready to go.

Once the rains broke in September, dumping 6 inches, the field recovered relatively fast. By keeping the sheep off the field we were able to help the field focus on surviving the summer.

Questions to think about:

  • How low and tall in forage are you comfortable letting the field get?
  • Are you able to pull the sheep off the field and feed them stored food?
  • How tall do you want the forage to reach before grazing to resume?
  • What are your area’s growth periods? How fast does your field grow in this time?

Short-Term and Long-Term outlook

The push and pull of short-term and long-term is one that’s hard to think about because of how many variables there are. Short-term issues include the immediate needs such as food and water, shelter, next week’s rain, growing crops, the next baby lambs being born. Long-term issues are grazing, soil health, climate change, and environmental disasters. But also so much more. Climate change is real and it is impacting the world right now. The predictability of weather is going to be both easier (short-term) and harder (long-term) as the climate changes but also we get better data and understanding of weather systems.

Besides the personal lifestyle changes you can make (such as eating meat once a week, driving less whenever possible, electricity from solar/wind/renewables), the structural changes are going to impact us in many ways. Some places are expected become drier such as the US west, while some areas are going to face more flooding and precipitation such as the coasts and the bigger, stronger hurricanes. Short-term grazing during a drought will impact the ability for your pastures to be able to recover because who knows when the next rain will be? If you’re starting a new pasture you may need more time if you rely on rains like we do for it to establish, which can increase costs and delay grazing areas. Also flood zones may shift, expand, contract, all depending on where you live.

For us we’re already in a flood zone plus the water from the streets flow downhill onto our property. We have a stock pond that’s seasonally full (when the rains come), but when we first moved in it would overflow and erode away the fence before dumping into the public creek. It would also flood that area, sending water up into our yard.

So what can be done in this situation? The answer for us was to install a culvert to lower the amount of water in the stock pond. Then we keep the channel leading to the pond and leading away from the culvert outlet to a more wild/free-growing area to help absorb the water a bit. This functions similar to wetlands where water can be channeled and absorbed by plants as it moves along. The most common plant along this pathway is giant ragweed (see picture below), which the sheep eat (and it’s nutritious for livestock, high in protein). As you face your local climate conditions, how will you handle and adapt to the more extremes?

Questions to think about:

  • How will climate change impact your region?
  • What kind of adaptations can you make to more rain? Less rain?
  • What kind of strategies can you adopt to lower wildfire risk? Hurricane damage? Flooding damage?
  • Think about what you want your field to be like in 5 years and 10 years. How will you go about getting to that?

Putting it all together

You’ve got a good idea of what your environment is currently like, maybe even what it’s expected to be like in the long-term with climate change. You got an idea when to pull off the pasture and when to get back on. You know what equipment you have (or not) to grow pasture feed. You have an idea how much food each sheep will eat, and can estimate how much food your whole herd will eat in one day. So putting it all together, now comes some strategy. I’ll detail some of our strategies given what we’ve experienced so far:

The first thing we look at it our grazing chart. We can track the precipitation. We look back at the last 2-3 weeks, seeing how much it has rained. If it is has not rained at all in that time frame, we look a bit further and see if the last two months have been below-average. Our threshold is 50% below average (so 1.5 inches received over 2 months vs 3 inches average). This also shows up on the grazing chart as it adds monthly totals. We then look at the 14 day forecast. If there is no rain expected, we consider ourselves on “watch”.

For a drought “watch” we then look at the health of the field. By the time a few weeks have passed, we’ll notice the grass is growing slower. So the first action we take is sheep stay inside the pens on the weekends. This helps delay movement across the field, allowing the grass to continue growing. For a “watch” we aim to have our feed inventories at 90 days worth of food, mostly in hay. With that we can feed the sheep for 3 whole months and leave the field completely alone if it was ever necessary.

If the rains come, we then give it a couple weeks (depending on how much it has rained) and let the sheep back out on the normal schedule. If the dry weather persists, we look at the NOAA and Drought Monitor. The NOAA is good for seasonal forecasts, such as the La Nina coming this winter. Drought Monitor is good for week-to-week updates on drought situations across the US.

As the drought becomes more severe, we pull the sheep off more and more while aiming to keep the feed inventories stocked. In 2019 we experienced a D2 and D3 drought (according to Drought Monitor) and given our field is still new in pasture did not grow much grass. The sheep stayed on the field only 3 days out of the week, spending 4 inside. We were fortunate that did not occur this year. If our drought became more severe, we would have sold off a few sheep to lower feed costs and kept the rest in the pens off the field the majority of the time. We expect the feed inventories to decline in a severe event, and so we aim to keep it at at least 60 days of feed, baring in mind that we still are feeding the sheep so the feed inventory is cycling through.

The temptation is great I know to let the sheep out, eat grass, and enjoy the field. But drought can damage your field not only in the short-term but the long-term if it is over-stressed from heavy grazing. And “heavy grazing” to a plant in drought stress can be a death-sentence, lowering the forage capacity of the field for years later on. Having a drought strategy that is flexible is important though. Especially as weather patterns become more erratic and haphazard. Hopefully this post gives some ideas as to what to do next, and we hope that you’re better able to face this kind of situation.

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