When drought strikes, it attacks agricultural producers and ag businesses with a vengeance. It challenges the norm by forcing new ways of thinking. It brings about new ways of doing things which soon become the new norm. And more than ever, ag organizations, agencies, and associated groups are a vital resource during such times.
The Sandhills Cattle Association is based in Valentine, although it’s 500 producer and 200 associate members are spread throughout northern and central Nebraska. The association began in the late 1930’s and serves to promote and market Sandhills cattle and provide promotional and educational opportunities to its membership. Ronna Morse has been the Manager of SCA for twenty-seven years. “People are really all over the board,” in how they are dealing with drought, Morse said. “The circumstances in every region are similar but different depending on their management styles.”
Range fires compounded the dry weather, she said.
“As the drought progressed through the summer,” Morse explained, SCA members “tried to do some management things to get through the winter. The fires we had…there were several people who thought they were set up to get through the winter and the fires took out their pastures. This has changed things quite a bit.”
Morse is in daily contact with SCA members thanks to her office’s role as a clearinghouse for available feed and pastures, jobs and job seekers. She said the drought is changing how producers approach their business.
“It’s probably making them look at different options, think outside the box, forcing them to look at different opportunities.” One example is that producers are baling rushes and other lower quality feeds and figuring out ways to incorporate them into their feed rations.
No doubt future SCA educational programs will be targeting topics which deal with managing drought. For years SCA has held a carcass contest so that members can test how their cattle feed out.
The organization also organizes an annual tour and provides current topics during their annual convention. The value of this interaction with producers cannot be underestimated in a year where every possible angle needs to be considered.
Providing the Options
Angles and options are what the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides. Tim Schaaf, Soil Conservationist with the NRCS in Broken Bow, said there are two primary ways his office can help producers during drought: money and information resources.
For example, this summer NRCS was the middleman in bringing farmers together to share information by setting up farmer to farmer links. He said this was tremendously helpful to those participating, in part because the information was coming from fellow producers. “They were non-government people, (each) with a son at home, with similar questions.” Farm programs, while providing money to producers, also provide valuable information and assistance in managing for drought.
“We base our cover requirements on the fact that soil regenerates at five ton per acre per year,” Schaaf said.
“Our philosophy is you can erode that annually and still maintain an acceptable level of production. And some of that has to do with the soil you’re dealing with. What we have, we can enhance through fertilizer management and those kinds of things.” But producers can go beyond the minimum that is necessary to qualify for farm program support. “If you have a plan that allows disking, and you no-till or strip-till, by not disturbing the soil you create a range-like condition where the freeze and thaw action of winter and wintering forms soil aggregates.
The soil sticks together, and makes it hard to wash away or blow away. If you exceed your minimum farm bill requirements, you’re going to weather-proof that soil. You’ll have more soil moisture for growing plants.” Schaaf said.
NRCS has a no-till incentive program which assists farmers in the conversion of a field to no-till. He said is also growing interest in cover crops this year, and NRCS can help with those costs, as well. “The cover crops add obviously more ground cover for erosion control,” Schaaf stated.
“They also are complimentary to the crops we’re growing and can make it more weather-proof. It’s forage for livestock but in addition it’s a house for microbes for the roots” and the good soil organisms living next to live roots.
While there was very little money for actual drought assistance this year, there are programs that help manage drought such as quick seed money for fall and spring grazing, the aforementioned cover crops, and assistance with watering systems such as pipelines, wells, and bigger livestock watering tanks.
And finally, Schaaf said, the NRCS helps with drought planning…the what ifs. The good news is that in making producer visits he has seen pastures in better condition than might be expected this year. Their drought plans are in place and are working.
Reaching Out to Producers
Extension education has been around for decades. In fact, some form of reaching out with information and demonstration has been in existence since the beginnings of farming and ranching 10,000 years ago. Extension Educator Troy Walz of Broken Bow is the modern representative of that world-wide tradition.
He said the current drought is compounded by the large sell-off of hay during last summer’s drought in southern states.
“That made forage less available economically,” Walz said. “We could get it but we’d have to pay for it,” he said. “A lot of the questions early on were what am I going to do for feed?” Walz worked on rations with producers, helping them to look at alternatives for the most economical feed ration.
He also provided statistics which producers sorely needed to help them make decisions. By weaning early, Walz said, producers could lower the cow’s nutrition requirements by 30 percent to 35 percent.
He also provided some drought management suggestions so that producers could minimize damage to rangeland resources and minimize any economic loss, also. “And each operation is different on how they can manage those two things,” Walz said.
“Any time we have a drought,” he said, “we know it reduces growth above ground and root growth. Drought also reduces formation of new buds for next year and future year grass tillers.
As we look toward next year we have to go back to managing our rangeland. Even after it rains and plants green up, we know they’ve been weakened and we have to be careful as we graze those plants.”
Walz said that how drought affects each pasture will be different based on how each pasture was grazed in the past. “If it was overstocked or if you’re in sandy soil you can’t graze it down to the ground.” And the year following drought, he added, “plants have opened their canopy and we’ll probably have to manage for weeds then.”
This Year Before Next Year
Before we can address next year’s issues we have to get out of this winter safely. Perhaps the only people putting in longer hours than the actual agricultural producers are the firefighters who’ve been working their jobs while fighting their community’s fires and mutual aid fires.
Charlie Jorgenson is Fire Chief of the Callaway Volunteer Fire Department. The CVFD has responded to thirty-four fires since spring, he stated. Of those, Jorgenson added, twelve were in the Callaway fire district and twenty-two were mutual aid fires from Ainsworth to Paxton and places in-between. The fire department crew has thirty-five firemen and women, a few who are EMT’s only (Emergency Medical Technicians).
Jorgenson quickly listed the two best ways to prevent man-made fires in rural areas.
“Keep equipment up and don’t drive out in pastures with catalytic converters,” he said. “Most (fires were) due to catalytic converters or bearings. They’ve just got to be really careful because anything and everything will start a fire.”
Jorgenson said this year was terrific in terms of support at fires. “By the time we get there four or five farmers and ranchers are there, with tanks of water. We get a lot of help from people which we dearly appreciate.”
A huge asset to the CVFD was what he called the 4-wheeler squads. “Heath Johnson from Oconto and his dad goes out and sees where it’s at...they scout fires. I can go out (with a 4-wheeler) and see where the fire is, and see where we need people.” He said the fire department is also leasing a John Deere gator for easier access around fire perimeters.
The fire department will need to replace a rig they lost in a fire this fall as well as one that is nearly thirty years old. Fortunately, Jorgenson said, CVFD is in pretty good financial shape thanks to a solid rural fire board.