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RANCH MUSINGS: A ranch cannot feed itself out of drought without stockpiling

David Zirnhelt’s column to the Free Press
Ranch Musings columnist David Zirnhelt. (File photo)

As this summer’s drought deepens, thanks to high temperatures and insufficient rain, I reflect on the advice given by ranching consulting organizations and government advisors over the last two decades. I can identify with the sentiment that is never too late to do the right thing, whatever that is!

The harshest conclusion put forth by the “Ranching for Profit” school is that a ranch can’t feed itself out of a drought. That is, you can’t afford to buy all the feed you need to replace pasture and forage crops required to feed the herd.

Their advice: destock to the numbers you can afford to feed. That seems rash when it can take years to build up to an appropriate genetic mother herd and when keeping a grazing license in good standing. Destocking government range requires a plan to restock within a few years.

I have heard time and time again from producers and feed dealers that it is best to stockpile a year’s feed needs in the barn. Good idea if you can swing it. Many will remember 30- 40 years ago when government subsidies could help people build hay barns. It was always doubtful whether without the subsidy, the farm business could show a return on such an investment.

However, with prices (and value) of hay almost tripling over the past few years, it may be that buildings (e.g. barns) will provide a positive return on investment. Sharpen your pencil and figure it out.

I also recall a drought situation in parts of the US southwest where ranches had little or no rain for five years, requiring a huge grazing land base where a ranch could graze cattle one year in five in some ranges and pastures.

Four years of rest in a rotation is a long time. In an intensive grazing management system, a rest of 90 days is recommended for plants to recover enough to enable a healthy stand of grasses.

I read this week that on the Canadian prairies that repeated droughts will require several years of normal precipitation to restore the grazing land. This suggests a much lower stocking rate and/or a much longer recovery time.

Those ranches that wish to put a more precise plan in place can get pasture planning advice from grazing mentors, although the current program is heavily subscribed.

Check out the BC Forage Council at

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