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Research Project: Semiarid Rangeland Ecosystems: The Conservation-Production Interface

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Title: Ranchers responding to drought

item Mealor, Rachel
item Kachergis, Emily
item Derner, Justin
item Roche, Leslie
item Tate, Kenneth
item Lubell, Mark

Submitted to: Wyoming Livestock Roundup
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/6/2013
Publication Date: 4/6/2013
Citation: Mealor, R., Kachergis, E.J., Derner, J.D., Roche, L., Tate, K., Lubell, M. 2013. Ranchers responding to drought. Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Vol. 24, #48.

Interpretive Summary:

Technical Abstract: Thad Box, a distinguished rangeland professional, once said, “We continue to approach each new drought as if it is a disaster rather than the norm, ignoring the past, and paying only lip service to sustainable use of dry rangelands.” I guess it should not be surprising to continue to see below average precipitation levels, but what are the impacts of drought on ranches and how do livestock producers manage them? In my last extension article we discussed preliminary results of a survey conducted to determine some Wyoming rancher’s (WSGA producer members) goals, ranch characteristics and management practices. A new scientific paper detailing survey results is available on the Rangeland Decision-Making Project website ( To add breadth to the study, California ranchers (members of the California Cattleman’s Association) were also surveyed using the same questionnaire. This time of year many of us are focused on precipitation levels, and according to the NRCS Wyoming Basin Outlook Report, as of March 1st the snow water equivalent across Wyoming is below normal at 85%. The NOAA seasonal drought outlook predicts persistent or increasing drought in much of Wyoming. The dry warm weather leaves us wondering if we are indeed in for another dry growing season. With this focus on drought, below are findings from both the Wyoming and California studies. To begin, it is important to consider major differences between the rangeland systems in which California and Wyoming ranchers work. Wyoming’s landscapes are largely perennial grasslands and shrublands while California rangelands are generally annual grasslands. As you can imagine, managing annual grasses that germinate, grow and die each year can be much different than the perennial grasses that many of us in Wyoming are more accustomed to. For Wyoming rangelands the beneficial period to receive precipitation is during the spring months, whereas California precipitation is largely received in the winter. Thankfully, we have less of an issue than California with invasive species dominating the landscape, particularly species not palatable to livestock. Ranching operations also differ between the two states. Wyoming ranches are generally larger than those in California, have more livestock, use a rotational grazing system, and have other activities occurring on their land. California ranches are smaller, less than half use rotational grazing, and about half had other activities on their land. It is fairly intuitive that many of the ranch characteristics are different, but what about the way ranchers make decisions in these two very different places? Many of the management goals held by both Wyoming and California ranchers actually mirror one another. Wyoming and California ranchers’ top goals are livestock and forage production, followed by many ecological aspects like soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat, and weed management. Given the differences in ranch characteristics, you might expect to see differences in drought impacts between the states. Ranchers were asked, “During the last drought, which of the following were impacted more severely than expected?” Interestingly, responses were very similar between the two states. The top three impacts were grazing capacity (not surprising given the effects of drought on forage production and that aspect being a top goal), profit, and winter feed. Ranchers were asked about two broad categories of drought management: preparation prior to drought and responses to drought. Many argue that a more pro-active approach, preparing for drought before it actually happens, is the best strategy. Overall, ranchers in Wyoming and California were proactive, although Wyoming respondents were more proactive (Wyoming 81%, California 64%). One reason for this goes back to the quote at the beginning of this