Drought: Plan Ahead for Adversity

Drought conditions in the U.S. have expanded rapidly in recent weeks.  ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Drought conditions in the U.S. have expanded rapidly in recent weeks. The latest Drought Monitor shows that 33 percent of the country is in some form of drought (D1-D4). This is the largest D1+ percentage since October, 2015.  Another 28 percent of the U.S. is abnormally dry (D0). Total U.S. hay production in 2017 was down 2.6 percent year over year. More troubling is the fact that December 1, 2017 total hay stocks were down 10.0 percent compared to one year ago. These two factors individually are concerning and combined should cause the cattle industry to think about potential management implications over the coming weeks/months.

In Oklahoma, 100 percent of the state is abnormally dry (D0 or worse) with 84 percent of the state in some form of drought (D1 or worse). The bulk of the drought is D1 (Moderate, 36 percent) and D2 (Severe, 36 percent) with 12 percent D3 (Extreme) and no Exceptional drought (D4) currently. However, drought conditions have expanded and worsened quickly in recent weeks. 

December 1, 2017 Oklahoma hay stocks were down 15.8 percent year over year despite a 2.7 percent increase in total hay production in the state compared to 2016. Hay stocks are down in the region with decreased December 1 hay stocks reported in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. New Mexico hay stocks were unchanged and Colorado reported a 6.1 percent year over year increase. However, combined hay stocks in Oklahoma and all states that border Oklahoma were down 15.7 percent on December 1, 2017. These seven states accounted for 49 percent of the year over year decrease in December 1 U.S. hay stocks. Recent winter storms and extended cold weather have accelerated hay use in the region and have no doubt further drawn down hay stocks since December 1. 

One immediate problem is the lack of growth of winter wheat and other cool-season forages and the generally poor and deteriorating condition of those pastures. Some cattle have already been removed from pastures and more early marketings are likely in the coming weeks. Producers should make alternative plans for management and marketing of cattle currently grazing winter pasture. In situations where wheat has not been grazed, contingency plans for use of whatever forage is available may be needed if drought conditions persist and worsen.

Another immediate problem is the high wildfire threat that may persist for several more weeks. Although producers have limited ability to avoid wildfire threats, any possible preparedness is a good idea. Enhanced daily vigilance may help catch wildfires more quickly. Have any available equipment that can be used to fight fire available and ready for rapid deployment.  In some cases plowing fire breaks around structures and hay piles may help reduce damage in the event of a wildfire.

Thinking farther down the road, producers should plan now for the possibility that current drought conditions get worse in the coming weeks. It’s important to assess forage supplies now and develop management and marketing plans in case drought conditions persist into spring. We know from bitter experience in 2011 how quickly devastating an early-onset drought can be. Drought contingency planning is like insurance: you hope you don’t need it but you cannot afford not to have it. If you wait until you have a problem, the available alternatives will be very limited.