Agricultural resiliency in the face of #drought

The headwaters of the Yampa River. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the CSU Extension Office (Todd Hagenbuch) via Steamboat Today:

If it feels dry and warm this winter, it’s because it is. While our snowpack water equivalent is lower than average in Northwest Colorado, it’s the warm temperatures that make it feel like even less snow as it has melted and condensed the snow considerably. In fact, every point west of the Continental Divide, from Idaho to New Mexico, has experienced unseasonably warm temperatures all winter, further exacerbating our low moisture levels.

When comparisons are made on percentage of snow level or temperatures, they are measured against an average, even if it is sometimes listed as a percentage of normal. The reality in our area is that normal weather is variable, really variable.

So how do landowners and agricultural producers make themselves resilient to dramatic weather?

  • Make a grazing plan for the longterm. Plan to have enough pasture for your animals no matter what happens. Yes, you may not use it all to maximum effectiveness every year, but having land in reserve for dry periods pays dividends in the longterm. Range grasses overgrazed even one year will lead to long-term, decreased production. Stressed grasses take even longer to recover from grazing, so allowing plenty of time for grass to rest during the growing season is critical, too.
  • Cull animals as appropriate while preserving genetics. If times get tough and you need to reduce the amount of forage consumed on your property, it may be time to cut numbers. Older, larger animals take more resources than smaller, younger ones, so consider that when culling. If you’ve raised your own replacement livestock, then keeping heifers/ewes and young bulls/rams with the same genetic makeup as the older animals allows you to keep the genes you’ve worked hard on promoting while reducing the forage required to keep the herd going.
  • Take advantage of moisture when it’s more likely to come. Consider taking on seeding projects and fertilization in the fall, when winter snows are more likely to guarantee moisture than unpredictable spring rains. Fertilizer depends on moisture, so move it into the soil profile quickly after application. Applying it right before snow-up helps guarantee it will move into the soil before dry air can cause volatilization of the nitrogen you’re trying to supply to your plants.
  • Use water wisely, for conservation sake and for better grass. Grass plants do not want to be wet all of the time, but do need water. Thoroughly soaking grass then letting it dry for a period of time before wetting it again helps grass remain resilient and helps your pasture retain the grasses that are best for grazing, not sedges and other water-loving plants. If you have little water, you’ll be more likely to manage it well if you’ve been practicing your irrigation skills in times of plenty.
  • Always plan for the unthinkable. Forest fires and other natural disasters can happen any summer. Be prepared with an evacuation plan for yourself, family and animals. Share the plan with your family and neighbors, and find out what their plans are. Practice when possible and make sure that everyone is on the same page so when the time comes, you’re ready.
  • There is only so much one can do to thwart the challenges Mother Nature throws at us. But thinking through possible scenarios and having a drought mitigation plan in mind before disaster strikes is paramount. Weather variability and extreme events are here to stay, and by planning ahead, you can assure that you can weather whatever comes our way.

    Todd Hagenbuch is the interim county director and agriculture agent for the CSU Extension office.

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