Recovering the Ranch After Drought

November 27, 2013 08:13 AM
Recovering the Ranch After Drought

If there are any lessons that can be learned from the past few years of sparse rainfall it’s that recovering from drought requires proper management.

"I think the biggest thing we’re doing is trying to have good programs going forward, and specifically with the grazing programs," said Trey Patterson, chief operations officer of the Padlock Ranch Company based out of Ranchester, Wyo.

Patterson spoke at the 10th Annual Holt Cat Symposium on Excellence in Ranch Management in Kingsville, Texas last month about the topic of "Recovering the Ranch After Drought."

On the Padlock Ranch, Patterson said, "We put a lot of emphasis on creating periods of rest so the pastures can recover from grazing and drought."

Changing the timing and duration of grazing allows for better development of the root systems and that can mitigate the effects of drought in the future, related Patterson.

Drought also causes a lot of stress, not just for the land and the cattle, but on the people who are the caretakers of those resources.

"Drought causes stress on human beings and it gets you down," said Patterson. "A person who is stressed and down emotionally, it affects you mentally and physically. It’s going to tremendously hamper your ability to respond and make wise decisions to work your way out of the drought."

During the early part of the 2000s the Padlock Ranch went through a period of drought that preceded last year’s drought in southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where the ranch is located. The first drought was harsher and forced the ranch to liquidate some of the cowherd.

The most recent period of low moisture during 2012 didn’t have the overwhelming impact that it did in much of the U.S., but fire was a major dilemma that resulted from the drought at the Padlock Ranch.

"We get these dry lightning storms in the late summer that come over the Rocky Mountains. If it is dry they will absolutely torch a lot of country," added Patterson. "Last year we had a tremendous fire situation. In one event we had 7 different fires that together burned out 75,000 acres in one unit, and it wasn’t the only fire we had during the year."

Cows were standing on black, scorched earth with no available feed.

"In the face of that we were thinking what do we do now?," said Patterson. "You go through that emotional phase where you’re sad, scared or worried, but the first thing is to get over that. You’ve got to get through that. It’s important emotionally to go through, but you have to have a sound business sense as you move out of that."

To make those sound business decisions Patterson said you need to look at information, like a fixed versus variable costs analysis, partial budgets and data kept on spread sheets over the years.

Here are some of the things that the Padlock Ranch did to help the grazing system:

  • Built back the cowherd after the first drought for a 12 month grazing system, instead of a 9 month grazing season with 3 months of hay supplementation.
  • Areas that were better suited for winter grazing were saved for that period of time, and cattle are stocked on areas in the summer where access to water was better but may have more snow and pine trees. "We moved cattle around to best use that land base," said Patterson.
  • Moved the calving date to May to better suit the grass, rather than in March/April when more hay is required.
  • Alternative grazing methods like grazing corn stalks in Nebraska on leased land or crop residue on the ranch, which ties into having geographic diversity in the operation. "I think if we can expand into areas where we are geographically different it does give you the ability to weather these regional dry periods and spread your risk," related Patterson.
  • Since cattle are harvesting their own feed some hay meadows have been turned into pasture and are irrigated under a pivot. Now heifers don’t have to stay in the feedlot through breeding, because they can be grazed on a management intensive program right on the ranch.
  • Yearlings make up about 20 percent of the summer grazing on the ranch which allows flexibility in years of drought because they are easier to move or market than cows.
  • Last year May/June calves were weaned early in August at approximately 280 lbs. to extend the grazing season for cows. It maintained condition on the cow and was more efficient than feeding pairs.
  • Pregnancy tests were performed as soon as possible. Cows with the latest due date were marked in case they needed to be culled and were pastured separately, while traditional culls like open, old or poor condition cows were sold.

In closing, Patterson said, "You have to have the right attitude. Make sure you keep your head above water and focus on the things that are important. If you do, you can come out of these situations with a better, stronger business than you had going into it."

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