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UNCE experts provide advice to farmers, ranchers

Posted 8/15/2012

Cattle being rounded up

Many ranchers are finding that they have to bring their cattle back to their home ranches as the drought reduces forage on the public rangeland.

Drought requires many to start planning for next year

Nevada farmers and ranchers should be planning now for 2013 in case this year’s drought continues, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension rangeland and agriculture experts say.

"It’s important to have contingency plans in place," said UNCE Humboldt County Extension Educator Brad Schultz, an expert in grazing, pasture and habitat management.

As a result of this year’s drought, Nevada ranchers are facing a number of compounding problems. Calves are smaller, sheep and cows are being forced to expend more energy to walk to watering troughs, and the quality of sheep wool is declining. Ranchers are being forced to rent pasture land or cull their herds by selling off animals they can’t afford to feed.

Schultz said there are several steps ranchers can take to prepare their cow-calf or sheep operations for another dry year, including:

  • Improving water-related infrastructures. An example would be cleaning out stock water ponds that have collected sediment over the years. Cleaning will allow them to hold more water.
  • Repairing leaky troughs and water lines.
  • Identifying animals for early sale based on their historic productive and nutritional needs.
  • Looking for cost savings that will help them set aside funds for supplemental feed next year.
  • Use of temporary fencing on grass-hay meadows and alfalfa fields to create small management units to improve forage consumption and delay the use of limited hay supplies.

Jay Davison, a UNCE alternative crops and forage specialist, said the drought is primarily affecting ranchers who rely on rangelands as primary forage for their livestock. He said this year’s water supplies are sufficient for farmers’ "normal crop production activities."

"As far as next year is concerned, no one has any idea what will happen," Davison said. "Wide swings in water supplies due to erratic precipitation is normal in Nevada."

Schultz completes a Forage Loss Assessment each fall, and the U.S. Farm Services Agency uses it to determine if livestock producers should receive insurance payments to offset significant losses from drought or other disasters.

"These payments can keep ranchers in business if they have to buy expensive feed to replace cheap rangeland forage," Schultz explained.

He noted that helping keep livestock producers going is crucial to rural economies.

"Livestock sales have an economic multiplier of almost three in these rural Nevada communities," Schultz said. "So when a drought hits, it’s more than the livestock producers or farmers who are affected. A lot of people get hurt."

Schultz’s assessment involves analyzing precipitation measurements and records from remote snow- and moisture-accumulation recording stations to estimate forage production at high and low elevations in seven geographic areas across Nevada. He also factors in wildfires, flooding and other severe disturbances. The calculations are complicated but play an important role in verifying claims made when farmers and ranchers find they don’t have enough irrigation water or forage to make ends meet.

Davison, who works with farmers on developing such low water-use crops as teff, said he doesn’t know of many farmers who are switching to low water-use crops because of the drought. One exception are the farmers who rely on groundwater basins; those aquifers are dropping rapidly and cannot be replenished with annual precipitation, Davison said.

Schultz said ranchers who rely on rangeland for forage are likely pulling their livestock off federal allotments and bringing them home early this year. Even areas with adequate forage have problems with water availability, and some ranchers are hauling water to troughs on their allotments as a result.

"Cow-calf pairs that come home early often will be weaned early to reduce nutrient demand on the cow so she enters the fall and winter months in better condition, increasing her chance of producing a calf next spring," Schultz said.

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