National Drought Mitigation Center


Ranchers review researchers’ drought planning tools

April 28, 2022

Ranchers and the workshop audience identified features that make decision-support tools useable for their purposes.

Ranchers and researchers are collaborating on how predicting forage production can lead to sustainable management, even during drought. At a meeting of the Society for Range Management, Feb. 7 in Albuquerque, N.M., a National Drought Mitigation Center workshop introduced eight new decision-support tools and asked ranchers to reflect on how such tools could be of greatest use.

“What a tool developer understands as useful information and what users recognize as usable in their decision-making context may not align,” the organizers note in the project report. Organizers of the session were Tonya Haigh, NDMC social science coordinator, and Julie Elliot, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservations Service in Colorado.   

Workshop attendees watched five-minute introductory videos about eight different tools: South Dakota Drought Tool, North Dakota Drought Calculator, MyRAINge Log, Grass-Cast, New Annual Forage Production Scenario Tool, PhenoMap, Rangeland Analysis Platform and FuelCast. Then a panel of five ranchers discussed how they could use the tools in decision-making, and attendees had a chance to ask questions. Following are some of the key takeaways.

Ranchers said that no tool could substitute for having boots on the ground – walking through pastures, taking photos and otherwise documenting conditions. But for those who do not have the benefit of long experience, tools can be a resource to understand long-term forage production patterns and help set critical decision-making dates. Although the assembled ranchers did not think it was likely that the tools would be the sole basis for decision-making, some said the tools could help flag problems by forecasting low forage production or directing attention to locations to monitor in person. Advisors and agency-based land managers may make greater use of some of the tools, which can provide a way to “see” more lands than what they can personally inspect.

Ranchers and the workshop audience identified features that make decision-support tools useable for their purposes. They liked being able to track their own precipitation and other data, and to collect data offline with a smartphone and sync it. Some liked to run “what if” scenarios, and being able to compare data with what they see on the ground. And they liked simple and intuitive maps as well as the option to export data into a spreadsheet or summary report.

Panelists emphasized the importance of building a long-term resilient ranching operation, which helps reduce the effects of drought and other adverse events, rather than just focusing on how they would react to drought. Elements of long-term resilience that they stressed prioritized soil health and management flexibility. Healthier soil holds more water and grows more grass. A rangeland management specialist suggested reconceiving drought planning as part of profit planning or sustainability planning.

Assisting with workshop facilitation were Maddie Goebel, NDMC social science researcher, and Grace Campbell, NDMC and University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources graduate student.

The videos on each tool are available as a playlist on NDMC’s YouTube channel,

-- NDMC Communications