Native rangelands recovering, but drought remains

Adam Russell, Texas AgriLife Today

July 26, 2023

Early summer and subsequent rains helped Texas’ native rangelands bounce back from drought. 

However, Texas A&M AgriLife experts warn ranchers that the more than 100 million acres of statewide grazing land they rely on may still be recovering. 

Bill Fox, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Center for Natural Resource Information Technology and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service range specialist, and Jeff Goodwin, Ph.D., research assistant professor and director of the Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management, both in the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station, shared their assessment of Texas rangeland recovery for livestock producers.

Goodwin said many Texans may not realize how important native rangelands are ecologically and economically. Rangelands provide critical forages in the form of native grasses, seed grasses and forbs for livestock, including cattle, sheep and goats, as well as wildlife like white-tailed deer, turkey and quail.

Native rangelands make up more than 100 million acres of the state’s 117 million acres of grazing lands that include improved summer pastures like Coastal Bermuda and Sudan grasses and cool season grazing like wheat and ryegrass. 

Despite the widespread rains and overall improvement on the U.S. Drought Monitor, Fox and Goodwin emphasized that much of the state remained in some level of drought.

If producers are restocking, they should start slowly and with conservative numbers of livestock, Fox said.

“Even this week, there is 70% of the state in some level of drought,” he said. “So, we’re not out of this deal. Conditions are better, but droughts don’t typically break during the growing season. Droughts break with good moisture in the cool season.”

Native rangelands emerge from depths of drought

Goodwin said many ranchers west of Interstate 45 had been dealing with drought for almost two years before widespread rainfall began improving conditions in May. Rainfall deficits over that time took a toll on native forage and browse critical for livestock and wildlife.

The depth of the drought was July 12, 2022, when 99.24% of the state was experiencing abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions. Almost 76% of the state was in severe to exceptional drought. Severe drought is indicative of poor pasture conditions, burn ban implementations and wildlife beginning to move into populated areas looking for food and water.

Supplemental feed for livestock and wildlife is necessary when an area enters the next level – extreme drought. Soil moisture is very low, and the ground shows large cracks and fire danger increases.

Exceptional drought results in widespread crop losses and heavy livestock culling or herd liquidations, degraded rangeland, major surface water shortages, poor water quality and algae blooms along with extreme fire dangers.

Statewide conditions did not reach levels experienced in 2011, the worst drought on record, though many individual ranchers and farmers in West Texas have endured worse localized conditions in 2022 and into 2023.

The one saving grace for ranchers during this period of drought compared to 2011 is that cattle prices have been historically high, Goodwin said. High prices made deeper culling easier for some producers, but many producers who had not experienced managing cattle and rangeland through droughts may have held onto cattle longer in the hopes rain would come.

“We had pretty terrible cattle prices in 2011, and this year we do not,” he said. “So, from a ranching perspective, we’re in pretty good shape because the market was up when we destocked.”

Balancing rangeland recovery, restocking

Goodwin said rangeland productivity takes time to recover following drought. Producers should consider foundational components like soil health and productivity as well as other localized factors before adding livestock.

“Restocking should be slow,” he said. “It must be at an appropriate level that gives the rangeland time to recover. It isn’t healed just because it grew a little grass.”

Goodwin said another positive from high cattle prices is that costs may deter producers who may be considering restocking earlier than their rangelands can support. 

Fox said having and following a grazing program that includes drought contingency plans can make a huge difference in an operation’s ability to conserve critical natural resources to sustain long-term profitability. Avoiding setbacks during suboptimal production conditions, such as overgrazing and the long-term impact of a delayed recovery, is critical to an operation’s ability to maintain production in optimal conditions.

The Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management is a Texas A&M University system-wide effort dedicated to the ecologic and economic resiliency of grazing resources and ranching operations. The Center for Natural Resources Information Technology provides rangeland decision-support tools that can be utilized by producers in the decision-making process.

“Economics and ecology work in tandem, and so much of our industry is driven by the economic part,” Fox said. “But ecology and resource availability are foundational to the economics of any operation. Conserving and managing natural resources with the intention of resilience should be a foundational aspect of long-term financial sustainability.”

Native rangelands support more than livestock

Goodwin and Fox said ranchers will also have to weigh other factors that will impact their ability to restock native rangelands like wildlife and water.

Drought can cause significant wildlife losses. Young animals up and down the predator-prey chain born in the spring were especially vulnerable during the recent drought because of the lack of water, food and cover.

Fox said wildlife population recovery has to factor into a producer’s drought plan. The rule of thumb is “take half, leave half.” Of the half of rangeland production “taken” via grazing, producers should only count on 25% being available because the other 25% is subject to wildlife – from rabbits and deer to grasshoppers and birds – foraging.

Surface water, another critical necessity for livestock and wildlife that was in short supply in many areas before the May rains, has not been replenished. Many areas may have received multiple rains that will help forage recovery, but it takes heavy rainfall to create runoff water to fill stock tanks and watering holes.

Fox said some water tanks in north Central Texas filled to the brim from the late-spring rains, while others in South and West Texas were still mud puddles despite the increased forage productivity.

Goodwin and Fox said livestock producers should be more optimistic than this time last year, but they should also be cautious about restocking while rangelands recover.

“Hopefully, producers are maintaining their drought contingency plans,” Fox said. “And hopefully we get a full-fledged El Niño this fall and good winter moisture, which could set us up nicely. We just don’t want producers to rush into decisions based solely on the improvements they may see.”

For more information about resources from the Center for Natural Resources Information Technology go to https://cnritag.tamu.edu/.

Southern Livestock

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