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Drought-Proofing Your Ranch

It’s always fun to talk about global warming during the winter. Especially when the wind is blowing, it’s minus 40 outside and all the cows are standing at the gate waiting for the feed truck. However, when one looks back at the past year a lot of people got a taste of what global warming is all about.

While hurricanes and rising sea levels seem to grab the media headlines, these are only part of the picture. The most dramatic impact of global warming is how it will affect the food producing areas of the world. During the next decade ranchers in Western Canada will bear the brunt of global warming. If the researchers are correct, the weather patterns in Western Canada are going to become more erratic. As a result of these erratic weather patterns, the droughts experienced by ranchers in Western Canada will become more intense and frequent.

If ranchers are going to survive these droughts, they will have to develop a proactive drought-management strategy to manage their most valuable assets, water and grass. To manage these assets effectively ranchers will have to drought-proof their ranches. Drought-proofing is creating a flexible resource management plan for your operation that will provide you with a degree of flexibility to manage your ranch during a drought. This plan should provide you with the ability to change the forage use patterns, the number of livestock, classes of livestock, and marketing strategies without seriously disrupting your operation.

Drought-proofing begins with taking a little time to sit down and think about the last drought. This provides an opportunity to review the good and bad decisions that were made and reflect upon the weaknesses of the operation. Once this has been done, the next step is to set goals. An important goal that must be set is maintaining adequate forage supplies.

Maintaining adequate forage supplies is an important goal in drought-proofing a ranch. The best way of accomplishing this is maintaining the range in “healthy” condition. In order to maintain the range in healthy condition a number of key criteria must be met. It is important to ensure adequate litter levels are maintained. Litter not only protects and keeps the soil cool soil, litter also helps trap snow during the winter. Another key criterion is keeping key forage species healthy and vigorous.

By keeping key forage species healthy and vigorous it is possible to maintain the productivity of the range during the drought and facilitate a rapid recovery following the drought.

The key to maintaining range in healthy condition is setting the appropriate stocking rates and ensuring the even distribution of livestock. What are the appropriate stocking rates that should be used to drought proof a ranch? The stocking rate should be conservative, and range between 80 and 90 per cent of the ecologically sustainable grazing capacity.

Even distribution of livestock can be achieved by developing water sources, moving salting sites and herding livestock more often. In addition to setting conservative stocking rates and ensuring the even distribution of livestock, ranchers should also consider maintaining a forage reserve. A forage reserve can be created by designating a field that will be used for emergency grazing.

While setting conservative stocking rates and ensuring the even distribution of livestock are the key elements in drought-proofing a ranch, they will not totally ensure that the range will be kept in healthy condition. To ensure that the health of the range is be maintained the rancher must develop an effective monitoring program.

Effective monitoring programs have several key components. The most obvious is monitoring range health and stocking rates before the drought occurs. These factors will ensure the stocking rates are kept at the desired levels and the range health is being maintained. However, it is also important to develop models that will help predict forage supplies. This type of modelling allows the rancher to estimate grass production and develop effective marketing and grazing strategies.

In the future, global warming will make weather patterns more erratic. This will mean droughts will become more frequent and intense. Drought-proofing is an effective way of ensuring these droughts will not severely disrupt ranching operations. The key to drought-proofing a ranch is setting conservative stocking rates, evenly distributing livestock, developing an effective monitoring program and using computer models to predict forage supplies.

Hyland Armstrong is a retired rancher from the Cypress Hills Alberta. He can be reached at [email protected]or 403 528 4798.

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