Jim and Carol Faulstich, along with their daughter and son-in-law, operate Daybreak Ranch in central South Dakota. Their operation includes a cow-calf operation, commercial/custom grazing for yearling steers, and guided upland bird and deer hunting. They manage 8,000 acres of native grassland, CRP, cropland, sloughs, and tree groves.
- Average precipitation: 18 inches. The driest year on record was 1976 (7.51 inches), while the wettest year on record was 1993 (27.85 inches).
- Range: The native range is made up of a Western Wheatgrass/Needlegrass community; cool season dominant, warm season sub-dominant.
- Additional feed sources: The operation includes corn acres for cash crop, silage, feed and cover for wildlife, and winter grazing of cornstalks. Daybreak Ranch is increasing production of year-round cover crops for building soil quality, wildlife habitat, wintertime livestock grazing, and controlling erosion. The mix includes small grains, purple top turnips, oilseed radish, lentils, canola, rape, vetch, and legumes.
Strategies for Preparing for Drought:
"There’s very little that we do here in this operation that isn’t influenced by the fact that we are in such a dry area. Whether it’s the fact that we are a predominantly grass operation because we can handle drought in a grass situation better than if it was all farm ground, or the fact that we graze year round so we don’t need a lot of feed hopefully. Even the hunting we added in to be a little more diverse, be flexible." – Jim Faulstich
Build flexibility, diversity and a buffer into forage resources
- As described above, Daybreak Ranch produces a diversity of forage options for livestock. In addition, the Faulstich family works to maintain a buffer of at least one year’s forage needs in their pastures and hay crops that they store in haysheds.
"We try to put up excess hay in good years…. We’ve got three haysheds that we put hay in and let it set for years like … a drought year when we didn’t have enough forage. I like to see a year’s worth of forage on hand at all times. That may be from stored hay. That may be dormant grass. That may be green grass, but it’s still available on the ranch. So if we have a year-and-half’s worth, we’re in good shape—we can do more grazing. If we’ve got six months’ worth, I’m awful nervous."
- The Faustichs have invested in improving their pasture forage and range quality, working through USDA programs on pasture improvement, fencing, and water development projects.
"Water development is probably the first and foremost for the average operation, to be able to water those cattle and distribute the grazing so that you can manage the grass, not just chew it all off in the riparian areas or where the well is or whatever."
Build flexibility, diversity, and a buffer into livestock operation
- The Faulstich family believes in using fairly conservative stocking rates for their core cowherd. The size of the core cowherd is based on the forage produced by average precipitation for the area. The core cowherd is small enough to ensure building and maintaining the buffer supply of forage.
- In addition to the core cowherd, the Faulstich family operates a custom grazed yearling operation. The yearling operation adds flexibility to the operation, particularly in dry years. Contracts are developed on a per-day, per-animal basis. "We don’t need any feed for them. It’s a way of utilizing our early spring pastures, which this is predominantly cool season grass here, so we’ve got a lot of cool season grass. That’s when we need more numbers."
- Finally, the Faulstich family times the calving season to begin later in the spring, in part so that cows need less forage and lesser quality forage to get through winter.
Build diversity into ranch enterprises
- Daybreak Ranch operates commercial upland bird and deer hunting businesses, which add flexibility to the operation. "There are years when it gets dry enough that it seriously affects the wildlife, but year in and year out the wildlife still does well even if we are on the dry side."
Critical dates and target conditions:
October 1st – This date is important to Jim for assessing how the operation is coming out of the previous year, including precipitation trends, amount of stockpiled forage, and subsoil moisture. If conditions indicate drought at this point, Jim may already begin planning to lessen grazing pressure for the following year.
May 1 – By this date, the region is halfway into an important precipitation window for growing forage (April – June) (Smart et al. 2019). "If we don’t have good moisture by then, we know we’ve got trouble. Not that we can’t come out of it, not that we can’t manage around it. It just makes life a lot simpler if it’s wet May 1. And if we don’t have subsoil moisture ... we know we’re up against the wall."
What is monitored and how:
- Jim and his son-in-law monitor precipitation and soil moisture, as well as the forage quantity and quality in his pastures and amount of hay stockpiled.
As indicated above, having a year’s worth of hay and forage stockpiled at the end of the growing season is a condition considered in planning the following year’s stocking rates.
Precipitation is monitored with an on-farm weather station. The weather station downloads to the operation’s computer and syncs to the South Dakota Drought Tool, which can be used be plan and set stocking rates.
The U.S. Drought Monitor is used to monitor general drought conditions locally and in the broader region, in tracking forage availability and livestock stocks and prices.
Strategies during drought:
- Conduct a ranch inventory
"Know what your livestock numbers are, what your feed needs are, and what you’re capable of producing. The [USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service] NRCS does that of course through their whole ranch planning."
- Find a cost share program for water development and other development
The Faulstich family has worked with the NRCS on water development and fencing projects as well as pasture improvement to improve the resilience of the grazing operation before and during drought. "One of the important things that we’ve done as far as drought management is we’ve got well or rural water piped onto every pasture that we own or rent."
- Make a plan so you can make early decisions "You can’t wait until you are out of grass or everything is burned up to react to the situation. If you ruin your natural resources and the land, it really doesn’t matter if you survive the drought or not, you’re going to put yourself out of business. And so that’s an important thing to learn about if producers haven’t already.”
- Send custom grazers home Custom grazing contracts are set over the winter, based on conditions monitored in late fall. If precipitation and forage monitoring throughout the spring indicate drought conditions, animals may be sent home early. "Our agreement is, with a two-week notice, those cattle need to get out of here. So that’s a very nice flexibility valve in our cattle numbers that we have out there utilizing the grass."
- Sell cull cows Stockpiled hay and forage, silage, cover crops and other available forage are reserved for the core herd during drought, but if monitoring indicates ongoing drought and insufficient feed reserves, the operation quickly moves to culling and selling cows. In 2016, culling began by July, months earlier than many other operations in the area. "We always identify cows that we can get rid of as our first priority. Those cows are gone and that’s that much less feed that (the remaining herd) will need. The calves are still on grass, but they’re not that big and won’t need that much, and we’ve eliminated cows that we didn’t want anyhow."
Strategies for recovering from drought:
- Embrace diversity. Faulstich said that the enhanced hunting operation weathered the 2016 drought. “It was dry enough to affect our pheasant hunting some that year, but not to a negative effect. The hunting operation provides steady revenue through most droughts.”
- Prioritize soil health. Faulstich said that soil health has led to reduced impacts in times of drought. “That's where you really start retaining the moisture and the health of the system, the health of your plant community to make it through these droughts. I can't say enough about soil health.”
Lessons Learned using plan during drought:
Faulstich said that 2016 was a really dry year on the land, and they implemented the drought plan during it.
- Stick to your plan. Faulstich said that he adheres strictly to the evaluation dates, and makes decisions based on what he knows as opposed to what he wishes. “I'm not much of a gambler. When it's dry, it's dry, and that's the way I assume it's going to be until it changes. I see people waiting too long on all this. They're always betting on the (rain to come). ‘Well it could start raining.’ Yeah, well it could and it will. But what about in the meantime?”
- Accepting that the 2016 drought would change the operation led to beneficial changes. During the 2016 drought, Faulstich said the custom-grazed cattle never went to grass. “We told the owner, there was really no point in adding expense to the enterprise for him. (We could send) them out to grass, and two weeks later wish we wouldn't have. We never even went to grass with any yearlings in '16 other than a smaller than normal group of replacement heifers. The custom graze cattle never went to grass. We did sell (some cattle) earlier than we would. That year we sold them in July. We beat the rush on other people selling cattle and stopped them from eating at our place.”
- Being proactive with drought planning during drought eases stresses on the land during less stressed years, too. “That's the value of the plan right there. We kept the resource in good shape. So in 2017, it was just business as usual. Just like ’16 didn’t happen.”