When faced with developing drought, ranchers often have questions. How severe is this drought? How long could it last? Is this as bad as the last drought we experienced, or is it the worst one? What are the chances it rains enough to produce normal forage over the coming weeks or months, and how much rain would be needed for a “normal” grazing year?
These are questions frequently asked by ranchers who have taken part in drought management workshops with the National Drought Mitigation Center and partner agencies, said NDMC rural sociologist Tonya Haigh. While many resources can help answer those questions, Haigh said they could be challenging to track down and sift through. Now, ranchers have a resource on the NDMC website that addresses a number of common drought condition questions on one map, in one place, including some map layers and management information specific to the Great Plains and Southwest U.S.
The Ranch Drought Monitoring Dashboard aims to provide information that will help ranchers reduce risk ahead of time, Haigh said. The dashboard features the latest data on drought and precipitation conditions, outlooks, on-the-ground reports, vegetative stress, forage productivity and more, organized around the key questions. A user who clicks on the question about drought severity, and how it compares to past droughts, is led to an interactive display that presents current U.S. Drought Monitor conditions and allows for historical comparisons. Other common questions lead users to other vital resources that can be displayed on a U.S. map, and used together, the map’s layers provide a clear picture of current drought conditions and expectations.
“There's a lot of information out there, and sometimes it's challenging to figure out what you are supposed to do with all of it,” Haigh said. “So that's why we organized this the way we did, to see if we can make the process easier by trying to tailor information that addresses specific drought monitoring questions that ranchers often ask. We worked with extension offices, USDA Climate Hubs and other advisors in the field to select a set of key questions that specifically speak to range management issues that a rancher would use the U.S. Drought Monitor, Grass-Cast, VegDRI or another resource to answer.”
Grass-Cast forecasts forage productivity in the upcoming growing season under below-normal, near-normal, and above-normal precipitation scenarios, based on nearly 40 years of data. The Vegetation Drought Response Index, or VegDRI, offers a weekly depiction of drought-related vegetation stress across the contiguous U.S. Along with those resources, the dashboard also incorporates monthly and seasonal precipitation outlooks, citizen science observations, and a collection of case studies for ranchers looking for drought management plan options.
Haigh said that, while many ranchers now have developed drought plans for their land, one of the biggest challenges is determining when to put the plan in action. With these tools in one place, ranchers will have key information readily available for decision-making.
The Ranch Drought Monitoring Dashboard was developed by the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) in collaboration with the USDA Northern Plains and Southwest Climate Hubs, with input by Extension and NRCS range experts in the regions, and funding support by the USDA Office of the Chief Economist. It was released to the public in April, at https://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan/monitor.aspx.
-Cory Matteson, NDMC Communications