COLLEGE STATION The drought of 1998 is impacting Texas rangelands and ranchers this year and possibly years to come, according to Dr. Wayne Hamilton, director for the Center of Grazingland and Ran ch Management. But there are ways for ranchers to plan for and cope with drought.
The major droughts of the 1930s and 1950s caused significant declines in rangeland production during the droughts themselves, said Hamilton. However, they also had a lasting effect, according to res earch conducted by Dr. Leo Merrill, former range scientist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Sonora and research that is still on-going.
“But following the drought, rangelands were never able to reach pre-drought levels if they were similarly stocked,” Hamilton said.
Drought along with grazing by livestock and wildlife caused change in the composition in the vegetation, he said. It diminished the bunch grasses and favored the sod-forming grasses better adap ted to stress conditions.
Rangeland makes up about 60 percent of the total acreage in Texas, hosting native vegetation such as grasses, shrubs and broadleaf plants or forbs ( most people know them as weeds). It also hosts w ildlife and livestock. If pastureland land that has had some improvements such as improved grasses or fertilizer is added, the total forage-based land makes up about 71 percent of the state, he said.
According to Dr. Wayne Hanselka of Corpus Christi, Extension range specialist, drought occurs when only about 75 percent of the normal rainfall is received. A severe drought would be classified as o nly half of the normal rainfall, he said.
Robert Fulbright, who ranches near Hebbronville in northeastern Zapata County, said with that definition, his ranch has been in severe drought since 1982. “With the exception of three years, we have received 12 inches of rainfall or less.”
The average for his area of the county is 15 to 16 inches. “Drought strategy has become the general plan, and severe drought, the emergency plan,” Fulbright said.
“Northeastern Zapata County can promise more and give less, and promise less and give more than any other place that I know of,” he said.
“Move too quickly and you have wasted time and money, move too late and the result is that you have the general fitness of the cattle herd decline to a point that it becomes even more expensive to s urvive.”
As a cow/calf operator, he recommends only running only 60 percent to 65 percent of the land’s capacity with the main herd. During good years, the surplus grass and forage can be harvested by raisin g stocker cattle.
When the lack of rainfall no longer allows him to produce the necessary amount of grazing, he begins supplemental feeding of his cattle with hay or by burning prickly pear.
“I tried to raise enough hay and store it in round bales to get me through the periods of severe drought, but I found that I could not raise and store enough to maintain the cow herd and be economic al,” he said.
“It is better to harvest your surplus grass with stocker animals and buy just enough hay for your traditional uses, such as freshly weaned calves, stocker calves that have just been purchased and an y other minimal uses.”
He also recommended protein supplements even though it is higher-priced, it results in a higher calf crop percentage and prevents problems with digestion of the prickly pear.
Fulbright said South Texas is becoming well-known for its populations of whitetail deer, feral hogs, quail and doves, and some exotic game animals.
“It is imperative you consider your wildlife when planning for a drought,” he said. “Game suffers from a drought just as much or more than the cow herd.”
The stress adversely affects the reproduction and life span of game. He said he found that supplemental feeding does not help the quality of wildlife that much, so he aids wildlife by adjusting othe r factors such as cow numbers and hunting pressure.
Fulbright summed up by saying, “To have an effective drought management plan, you need to first define what drought is and at what point you are in a drought. Secondly, be ready to implement your pl an, stick with it and at the same time have the flexibility to quickly adapt to changing conditions. Last and most important, go to church and pray for some help because you are going to need it.”