By Craig W. Anderson
With the arrival of latest moderate to exceptional drought, the University of California Cooperative Extension has notified ranchers of a new drought decision – support tool that should help cattlemen through the current near record drought conditions.
Grace Woodmansee of Siskiyou County and Dan Macon of Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba counties combined their resources and created the Drought Strategies Decision Support Tool based on what the cattle industry learned from the 2012-2016 drought seasons.
Woodmansee is the Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for Siskiyou County and Macon is the Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor for Placer, Nevada, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Their idea is to help ranchers work through specific strategies to deal with on-the-ground conditions with a tool that guides them through developing their forage outlook for the next year. The tool also helps ranchers relate their reactive strategies, such as weaning lambs early or selling breeding-age females with ranch goals and proactive drought tactics.
“This tool does a really good job of putting together things that need to be said,” noted Diana Connolly of Connolly Ranch in the hills near Tracy. “It’s good for families, for young ranchers who are just getting started and it prevents the knowledge of previous experienced ranchers being lost.”
The tool also helps ranchers establish a critical date for them to take action.
This is part of how Farm Bureau continues to relate to the university,” said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. “Farm Bureau, no matter its location, can still help the organization as a whole and thereby information spreads throughout the Farm Bureau/UCCE system. It is a continuation of a long-standing relationship with the university.”
Both Woodmansee and Macon agree there is no “right way” to plan for an unpredictable natural disaster like drought. The goal of their drought decision support tool is to provide a starting point that “fits your needs, [so] use it as a worksheet for yourself, as a way to start conversations with your family and management team.”
The idea is to create a drought management plan with both proactive and reactive strategies which accomplishes three key things: 1] sets deadlines – or “critical dates” – for making important decisions; 2] helps prioritize objective – rather than emotional – decision-making during a time when many difficult decisions must be made; and 3] pairs proactive and reactive strategies to help you avoid sunk costs. Just as your budget is a tool for personal finance, your drought plan is a tool for your ranches’ business strategy.
Flexibility is vital and drought management strategies provide 1] flexibility in forage demand and: 2] flexibility in supply.
It wasn’t easy for Woodmansee and Macon to develop this plan of drought action as she said, “Dan and I worked to put the decision-making tool together this spring after it became apparent that California’s drought was here to stay. The interview data that was the jumping off point for our work was collected in 2016.”
“What did we do during the last drought?” Connolly said. “We learned from it but beyond the fact that we’d all like an average year of rain and water to help today’s very bad forage situation, the time has come to be proactive about creating storage.”
“Tools being available is one of the main talking points in agriculture these days,” explained SJFB President David Strecker. “I just hope it’s not too late to have an effective result. It’s important that we’re proactive instead of being reactive.”
He said, “Building storage for the future is definitely proactive but we can use the past to help us move into the future by not making the same mistakes.”
Woodmansee remarked that, as part of her graduate program at UC Davis, she “worked with the team to analyze and interpret the data.”
She said the support and feedback from the ranchers interviewed “was a really important part of the process and we hope other ranchers will find that the tool accompanying spreadsheets are easy to apply to their operations.”
The tool links to a series of spreadsheets to help ranchers analyze the costs and benefits of key strategies such as feeding hay, weaning early or selling some or all of the livestock.
Severe drought impacts ranching communities throughout the Western United States and many support tools and programs have been developed to help folks manage through these conditions. Due to the state’s diverse rangeland and livestock production systems, decisions really have to be tailored to each unique ranching operation.
Woodmansee said they hope “this tool will help provide the information needed to make that process a little easier.”
Macon commented that the ranchers who “participated in our 2016 surveys identified stress as an important issue. There’s a growing recognition within the extension system that mental health is a critical need especially in rural communities and professions. We found the Montana State University information to be particularly relevant to our current situation.”
She and Macon also discovered while talking to producers who managed through that earlier drought that reactive strategies like supplemental feeding are related to proactive strategies like resting pastures to conserve forage. “We hope ranchers will use this tool and provide us feedback on how we can make it even more useful,” Macon said.
“Feed purchases are important and this tool could be good if the information’s detailed and actually aids the rancher,” said Kenny Watkins, Linden diversified rancher and farmer. “It seems it would help us make informed decisions about a number of ranching elements.”
Watkins said any tool intended to answer questions about cattle has to be “user friendly and relatively simple to understand.” This tool can be used with range animals including beef cattle, sheep and goats.
Watkins said the key to any successful program like this is that it aids the rancher in making informed decisions that relate directly to their operation.
Woodmansee said, “There is no one “right way” to plan for drought. Our hope is that this decision-making tool can be one part of the solution, not the final say in how folks decided to manage their operation through an extreme drought.”
However, Macon said, “We’ve tried to make it [the tool] applicable for all rangeland livestock producers.”
Woodmansee said, when asked if their drought management system could be used for dairies, that “the system was created for ranchers with extensively managed livestock that are relying on rangeland and irrigated pasture for the majority of their forage calendar.”
Macon said, “Ranchers have indicated that the forage calendar and economic analysis tools are very helpful in taking a systematic and thoughtful approach to their drought plans. In fact, some have asked for a greater level of detail in the economic analysis worksheets.”
“It’s difficult to develop a decision-making tool that is applicable to every operation,” said Woodmansee. “We really tried to make this tool open ended enough so that it’s useful for all ranchers, whether that’s considering the economics of a new drought managing strategy or even just helping to start a conversation.”
Part of that conversation will begin soon as, said Woodmansee, “We are planning to host some workshops and field days soon!”
Has the Drought Strategies Decision Support Tool been modified or changed much since its introduction? “We would really appreciate feedback from ranchers, then use that information as our goal to continue refining the tool as we hear from those who have tested it,” Woodmansee said.
“Connolly said development in drought-afflicted areas of the county doesn’t take intoaccount where water for them will come from. “Additional population in and around grazing lands without water considerations … it’s difficult to understand how this can continue to happen.”
“And yes – we have modified it already!” Macon said.
The tool is available at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/drought; Grace Woodmansee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dan Macon can be reached at email@example.com.