LINCOLN, Neb. -- Several years of drought across Nebraska have shown farmers and ranchers that the best time to develop a successful drought management plan is before drought strikes.

To deal with drought, producers are reducing cattle numbers, practicing better grazing management and doing a host of other related practices, a year of surveys and interviews conducted by the National Drought Mitigation Center, based at UNL, and the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill revealed.

The surveys and interviews found that producers dealing best with the drought had drought management plans in place before the drought began, said Cody Knutson, water resources scientist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

"First and foremost, our (drought management) program did not start when the drought started," said Lynn Myers, who along with his wife, Marlene, runs a family cattle operation near Lewellen. "We put in a (grazing) rotation in 1985, and we've always rotated, not like we do now with the drought, but we've always given our pastures a rest."

Myers, who participated in the project's "Surviving the Drought" workshop last month, discussed the four-phase grazing plan he uses to build good grass reserves through a grazing rotation system.

"Most people don't put a drought program into effect until they have a drought, but it's too late then," he said. "A drought will happen, so when things get back to normal, put in some sort of a drought plan and some sort of rotation system for your pastures. Plan ahead and plan for a worst case scenario."

"At the Drought Mitigation Center our big goal is to reduce the effect of drought on societies," Knutson said. "Most producers should be able to go through a year or two of drought," but several years are taking a toll.

"The best farmers and ranchers can do right now is to not ruin their grass production and their operation for next year. Droughts are a normal part of the climate in Nebraska, and producers should have a drought management plan in place or start preparing one now for the next drought."

Surveys were mailed to Nebraska members of the former Holistic Resource Management group, Sustainable Agricultural Society and Organic Crop Improvement Association.

In addition, 47 producers were interviewed across the state, including farmers, ranchers and organic producers.

"We wanted to look into these sustainable agricultural practices in Nebraska farming and ranching to see what strategies they are implementing and what they are talking about when they say they are being more drought resistant," Knutson said.

Phase one of Myers' four-phase grazing plan includes using a good rotation that builds reserves for the drought years.

"We all know we are going to have drought years," Myers said.

Myers added it is important to have other pasture land available to use. That's where phase two comes in. For Myers this included haying some land on Ted Turner's Blue Creek ranch and later grazing on the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

"This helped us take pressure off our pasture," he said.
Myers said his operation now is in phase three. This includes grazing their meadows and using the hay reserves they had built up. He said his hay situation is not critical, and his pastures are in good condition.

He said they will get by until next spring. However, if his pastures do not receive ample rains next spring he will have to enter phase four of his drought management plan: de-stocking.

"We haven't had to cut back that much," Myers said. "We did send some cows out on shares last fall and this fall will put another 100 head out, but it will be one of the hardest decisions we would have to make to get rid of them all."
The ranch has been in the his wife's family for 99 years -- five generations.

He said if his ranch did enter stage four, they would sell the older cattle first, then the middle age, then first-calf heifers and finally the heifer calves.

"We've had control of our breeding program for the last 30 years," he said. "I would hate to start over."

Knutson found that two-thirds of the people surveyed had to reduce livestock numbers. The average reported reduction in central and western Nebraska was 30 percent from 2002-2004.
"If you get past 30 percent of your herd, that is really cutting into the herd. That was prior to this year, they are having to do it again now," he said.

The survey also revealed other top practices farmers and ranchers used to reduce the effects of drought including: developing new water sources for irrigation; building soil organics, such as by using cover crops; minimizing tillage; using crop rotations, alternative crops and interplanting; and financial and management strategies, such as better record keeping and generating other income.

Homer Buell of the family cattle operation, Shovel Dot Ranch, near Rose, said they have been fortunate.
"2002 was the only year we were real dry," he said. "2003, 2004 and 2005 were some of our best hay production we've ever had."

However, other than three inches of rain in June, this year the Buell's family cattle operation, which Homer runs with his brother Larry, has been dry.

The Buells have made contacts to rent corn fields for grazing.

"Normally, we have enough grass here and graze our cows year-round," Buell said. "But this year because it is dry, we've set up to go to corn fields. We also are looking into buying corn cobs."

In 2002, he said they grazed corn stubble and baled corn.
The Buells are keeping their grass in good shape with a good root system.

"That is one of the best things you can do," he said.
In addition, they keep extensive grazing records so they know where the pasture's production ought to be and also keep a good mix of different grass species. Also, since the Buells' operation is a yearling operation, they are able to move their cattle quickly if they need to.

"I am a firm believer that you need to have a good grazing plan, and not only have plans in place but monitor what kind of effect you are having on your grass over time," Buell said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped fund this project.

SOURCE: University of Nebraska news release.