Study: Ranchers with drought plans make some pivotal moves sooner


BY NDMC Communication

via KTIC (NE) - January 5, 2021


Once a drought develops, ranchers must make decisions in rapid succession to prevent problems from compounding. Do you cull cows or send home contracted grazers from other operations? Do you purchase more feed to make up for the herd’s lack of grazing options? Do you graze fall or winter pastures earlier than you previously planned?


To manage not only the operation, but the stress of running it when water is lacking, many ranchers are developing drought plans in advance. Based on research by Tonya Haigh, a rural sociologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, those plans allow ranchers to make decisions based on specific “if-then” circumstances and triggers. The journal Rangeland and Ecological Management recently published an article by Haigh detailing the results of a survey of ranchers. She led a team that surveyed a collection of Northern Plains ranchers who endured a 2016 flash drought that significantly altered forage production in the area. Some had drought plans on file. Others did not.


Haigh said that while the drought center and other drought-preparedness agencies stress the importance of developing plans for drought, there is not much data that quantifies the difference between having one and not. This survey, the final piece of Haigh’s dissertation research, was an opportunity to examine the differences in an isolated area, western South Dakota, following a localized drought event. The survey was part of a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sectoral Applications Research Program, designed to improve agricultural drought early warning capabilities in the Missouri River Basin.


Of the 250 ranchers who responded to a mail-in survey, 59% reported having an if-then plan for drought. Haigh said there was no education or experience-based discrepancy between those who had a plan on file and those who did not, but ranchers with drought plans tended to run larger-scale operations. The survey, Haigh wrote, found that having a drought plan increased the likelihood that ranchers took some actions during drought, but not others...