National Drought Mitigation Center

Nebraska Sandhills - Reed Hamilton Ranch

Ranch Location: Sandhills of Nebraska

Operation: Commercial cow-calf yearling operation. All cross bred-cows. Sell some calves and some yearlings. Some yearlings are custom grazed. “And that’s part of our drought management plan in itself.” Also has 300 acres pivot irrigated cropland


Native range - Sand Bluestem plant community

  • warm season dominant, cool season sub-dominant

Average Annual Precipitation - 17 - 22 inches

Ranch Critical Dates and Target Conditions

Decisions are made on a day-to-day basis, and when moving between pastures.

Ranch Monitoring Plan

  1. Monitor grass (available forage and range condition) and precipitation
  2. Pasture management book - page on each pasture
  • date that the cattle went in
  • what class the cattle was
  • when the cattle came out
  • a production figure
  • comments, such as hail, rainfall, etc. 

Before Drought

1. Grazing System

  • A ten pasture rotation system

"A planned grazing system that has multiple pastures is an excellent way to help you through a drought. Your root system of your plants is maintained in much better in a planned system than it is in a season long continuous grazing system, and so it gets you further into or through a drought. And as you come out of that drought, your recovery is quicker too."

  • Graze pastures at different times in successive years.

2. Custom Grazing

Soil moisture and range condition help determine how many custom grazed cattle to take in at beginning of season.

Custom grazing “gives us flexibility during drought. It’s more liquid asset that can be moved more quickly than a cow-calf pair can. It allows us to liquidate, or destock, in a much quicker fashion.

Has had cool season irrigated pasture in past years, but discontinued because of costs.

During Drought

  1. Has a written plan
  2. Progress through grazing system until decision that change needs to be made. Decisions are made on a day-to-day basis, and when moving between pastures.
  3. Changes may include taking off custom grazed cattle, taking home-raised yearlings to auction or feedyard, or early weaning calves
  4. In severe drought (2006), 25% of cow herd may be liquidated. With no subsoil moisture, decision was made to pair cows at calving (April/May) based on the age of the cow. 

"Ten years and older, all those cows went into a separate pasture. So I had a bunch of cows ready, sorted, so if I needed to do something soon, I had that done. And actually that really helped out."

Lessons Learned

"I think [my drought plan] worked pretty well. I keep track, not only on a per pasture basis, I keep track of the productions, AUM’s per acre, and I could see a steady decline over those years. And so I felt like I was more ready in ’06 than I would have been if I didn’t have those records to fall back on."

"[If I had to do it over again,] I think I would have made the decision to wean calves… earlier than I actually did. Because it seems like the rate of decline of range condition accelerates in July and August. You know with the increased temperatures and the decreased precipitation, it’s not a linear change, it ramps up quicker than what you realize. So I would have made the decisions I did, if I had to do it over again, I would have made those decisions quicker."


  1. Start Keeping Records
    "The first thing is, keeping good records. So that you have an annual basis to go back to and see, ok I got this many AUM’s on the ranch in such and such year and that was considered somewhat of a normal year. And just establish a basis to look back on. So record keeping is absolutely number one."
  2. Learn to Observe, Monitor
    "And then the second thing is observation. Over time you gain experience in looking at grass and which species kind of your key species that you make decisions from." 
  3. Write Down your Drought Contingency Plan
    "The next step would be have a plan written down, on what your contingencies are. You know like, in my case, I liquidated cows in the most severe year, and then weaned calves early. And then the yearlings is your third option, if you have a yearling operation, why that’s a quick way to destock or depopulate, quicker than cow-calf pairs.

    "If a person is prepared, the consequences are a lot better if you’re prepared than if you make decisions..if you either don’t make decisions or the ones that you make are too late, it has consequences."