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Holistic Ranching: Drought mitigation

The active part of the 2015 drought is behind us. While this is true it is important to recognize that the effects of the drought will linger for some time. One of the lingering effects of the drought is the stress and pressure it may cause in our families. This can be a serious situation that should not be ignored.

If stress is an issue in your life I encourage you to take positive steps to deal with it. Often just talking things over with your spouse or a friend may help. It is odd how most of us withdraw from friends and family when we most need their support. Be aware of your mental health and the mental health of your family and neighbours. Is there someone you might help by visiting with them? Make yourself available. You may be rendering a valuable service. If the situation is serious get professional help. Being wise enough to seek help is a sign of strength and wisdom not weakness.

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herding cattle on a pasture

The effects of the drought will also challenge many of us with feeding and marketing decisions. Here again I encourage you to make a plan. Investigate different feeding options. Look for a least-cost ration. Know how much you can pay for feed and at what point marketing some of your animals may be a wise decision. Prices are strong for all classes of cattle. Selling calves you normally winter may be a viable option. Selling a portion of your cow herd might be a wise decision. I encourage you to look at all the options. Be flexible. Think outside the box. Realize that you have many options. Pick the one that best suits your individual situation.

Now let’s look ahead. In most areas in Western Canada drought is a fact of life. The severity and frequency of the drought varies from area to area. The fact remains that most of us can expect to experience another drought at some future date.

This leads me to the title of this article “drought mitigation.” I wasn’t real sure what mitigation meant but it seemed like a good title. The definition of the word is to make less severe. That’s exactly what I want to talk about.

Do you realize that your management can mitigate the next drought that you experience?

A Case Study

There was a heavy rain in the area, five inches or more in a short time period. Following the rain the neighbours’ dugouts filled immediately so while they had to continue to feed they could stop hauling water. Gene’s dugout came up only marginally after the rain so he continued to haul water. Gene was perplexed. He knew he had received the same rain as the neighbours. He had no idea why his dugout had not filled. Over the next two weeks his dugout filled.

Now let’s analyze what happened. On the continuously grazed land the water cycle was poor. This resulted in most of the rainfall running off. The dugouts filled immediately. Only a small portion of the rain remained in the land for plant growth. Gene’s land had an effective water cycle. This resulted in most of the rain soaking in. A large portion of the rain remained in the land for plant growth. The result was a rising water table, which eventually filled the dugout from the bottom.

Gene’s land was later tested by the NRC. A cubic foot of his land had the ability to hold 10 times the amount of water that a cubic foot of the same land would hold when continuously grazed. This clearly demonstrates that you can change the water table on your land by improving your management.

The planned grazing process used by H M stops overgrazing and improves soil fertility. It allows us to improve the four ecosystem building blocks, energy flow, water cycle, mineral cycle and succession, which are closely linked. As you improve one of the blocks you have a positive impact on the others.

By improving the water cycle you can double your effective rainfall, the amount of water available for plant growth after run-off and evaporation are accounted for. We are all aware that when it rains some water is lost to run-off. Some soaks in. Some of the water that soaks in will be lost to evaporation. When the soil is covered there will be less run-off. When the soil is high in organic matter and porous it will hold more water. When the soil is covered less water is lost to evaporation. The result is an effective water cycle. We have now doubled our effective rainfall, the equivalent of doubling our rainfall.

Everyone talks about the lack of rain and drought. A large part of the impact of drought is due not to the amount of rain but the ineffective water cycle. You can’t do anything about the rain you receive. You can improve your water cycle.

Rainfall is the limiting factor in most of Western Canada. By using better management we have the ability to double our effective rainfall. By doing this we will mitigate the effects of the next drought. Think back to this past summer. How much better would you have fared if you had received double the amount of rain? How much more hay and pasture would you have produced if your land had an effective water cycle?

Suggestions to Mitigate Future Droughts

  1. Investigate H M and planned grazing.
  2. Visit a neighbour who uses the H M principles.
  3. Take an H M course.
  4. Manage for an effective water cycle.

Drought is a fact of life for most of us. Better management will help mitigate the negative impact of the next drought. I encourage you to think about this and to investigate H M. The time to prepare for the next drought is now. Happy trails.

About the author

Columnist

Don Campbell ranches with his family at Meadow Lake, Sask., 
and teaches Holistic Management courses.

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