DROUGHT May 2014


“Charge it to the dust and let the rain settle it.”  There’s always a drought lurking around the corner, it seems.  How you prepare for and manage it will go far in the price you pay at the end.  Personally, I believe in thinking and planning over spray, pray and pay agriculture.
Here in Texas, ranch life is ruled by the weather. I grew up dryland farming and ranching through some pretty humbling droughts that caused us to get innovative in our drought survival strategies.  Most of our place was a sand dune to start with and we’d watch helplessly as the clouds would build up and dissipate or part around us.  Our average annual rainfall was supposed to be 32″ and we scored a whopping 16″ in 2.5 years.
Priority one is hard culling.  Since it’s difficult to know the duration of a drought, wishful thinking can get us in trouble by overtaxing our resources.  If you damage your perennial pasturelands early in a drought, what are you gonna get by on when it really turns into a she-bear?  Keep your best performing stock, keep a constant eye fixed on health of the pasture and have a continous culling plan throughout the drought… or pay for hay along the way and see how much money you spent on holy cows.
Texas was at one time a sea of tallgrass prairie that no one believed could be subdued. However we’re now lucky to find prairie remnants.  If you take care of your native grasses, they will take care of you.  Most exotic grasses just don’t have a root system to compare.  Our 80 acres of switchgrass bottomland and 150 acres of little bluestem are really what carried us through, with the exception of weeping lovegrass.  Bermuda and natives can coexist.  Many perennial forbs like cut-leaf daisy and bundleflower are important as well.  Don’t underestimate the value of weeds in these situations.  Depending on species, some weeds can handle droughts well and offer viable nutrition if not select palatability.
Cool season annual food plots make lots of sense/cents since we are more likely to see our rainfall in the fall – spring window.  Triticale, cereal rye, wheat, ryegrass, vetch, arrowleaf clover, turnips, etc.  Forward stockpile any excess as hay or silage.
High density rotational paddock-shift grazing.  Cross-fencing is a must anytime.  Herbivores grazing shoulder to shoulder to clip the grass sward low and then getting out for the grass to recover is how it is meant to be in the time honored tradition of nature.  Learn to be a good grass steward.
Woody browse.  We kept our wooded areas fenced out and didn’t ‘graze’ until we got to the peak of summer.  Oak, pecan, elm, hackberry, honey locust and greenbriar are the best but others will do.  Purposely planting woody plants into your grazing system as a savannah or silvopasture is a great practice.  Planting hedges of thornless prickly pear as a drought backup plan is another great idea.
Taking care of the soil health also pays big dividends.  If your soil resembles a rock more than a sponge, you have work to do.  Organic matter holds water, nutrients, feeds beneficial soil organisms and many other positive services.  Don’t plow your land into oblivion and don’t let it become heavily compacted either.  Aeration, whether mechanical or biological, allows the development of robust root systems which translates to staying power.
Last but not least is strategic water conveyance.  Keyline design was pioneered in Australia and is cutting edge infrastructure technology to make best use of the rain that falls on your ground.  One of these days the good people of the USA will have a face in palm moment and say,”why haven’t we been doing this all along?”
Waste not, want not.  In the end, be glad we’re not in the Atacama desert and may you have a happy next drought cycle!

Ben Tyler