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Dealing With Drought: What Ranchers Should Know Before Independence Day

By Amy Spillman
October 10, 2002

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So said Benjamin Franklin, and Agricultural Research Service scientists at the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Mont., have taken this advice to heart. They are looking for ways to manage drought on rangeland before the problem gets out of hand and herds run out of forage.

Fort Keogh is in the northern Great Plains, an arid region that is periodically beset by drought. According to Rod Heitschmidt, the lab's research leader, one of the biggest problems facing those in the range livestock industry is knowing when to implement their drought management strategies. Right now, many wait until a drought is well under way before they take action, thinking that rain is just around the corner and that once it occurs, all drought-related problems will disappear.

But Heitschmidt, along with rangeland scientist Keith Klement, is conducting a series of experiments that may help ranchers make effective drought management decisions long before their cattle deplete the rangeland forage base.

From analyses of data collected during 10 years at Fort Keogh, Heitschmidt and Klement have found that, on average, about 90 percent of rangeland forage is grown by July 1. By that date, therefore, ranchers have a pretty good idea of what their total annual forage production is going to be. This knowledge should permit them to adjust their stocking rates long before their herds deplete the entire forage base.

In 2003, the scientists will further test the hypothesis that forage growth from summer rains cannot compensate for reduced growth from springtime drought. They will simulate a drought from April to June on experimental plots and irrigate the plots in July and August.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

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