Preparing Your Operation for Drought

Megan Van Emon, Extension Beef Cattle Specialist

Much of the state has been experiencing Spring-like weather for the past few weeks, which has made for a pleasant calving season. However, based on snowfall and precipitation through the winter months, drought may be an issue to start considering.

The current U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook was just released on March 18, 2021 and it appears drought is forecasted to continue for much of the Eastern side of Montana through June 2021. This map shows that most of the Western United States will have persistent drought through early summer. Additionally, the drought monitor indication for Montana shows the majority of the state (85%) is in drought. Therefore, as you are preparing for the summer grazing season, you may want to look at your Drought Management Plan and begin to make decisions should the drought persist in your area.

One of the key aspects of your Drought Management Plan should be critical dates and thresholds for your operation regard grass production, cattle production, and current inventory. Grass production in Montana relies heavily on spring and early summer precipitation for forage quality and quantity. Without needed precipitation during those months, grass production is reduced, which reduces grazing time and capacity in those pastures.

Cattle production thresholds should be monitored through body condition and calf growth during late spring and early summer. One method to aid in reducing forage demand from your cow-calf pairs is to early wean. Removing the suckling calf will reduce nutrient requirements of the cows and reduce forage consumption. However, early weaning calves requires additional labor and resources, mainly in drylot accommodations and additional feed for the rapidly growing calves. If you consider early weaning, you need to make sure those calves have a destination to continue growing.

Assessing your current and future inventory needs can help you make early decisions when considering drought. One of the largest components is collecting an inventory of your feeds and water sources. Feeds may include your current hay supply, straw, supplements, pasture, and vitamins and minerals. Water source inventory may include making a list of your current water sources and the impacts previous droughts have had on those sources. Knowing the impacts of drought on your water sources may alter your grazing rotation. Determining the impact of drought on your resources will help you make early decisions for grazing and for the potential purchase of additional feeds.

If the drought persists, a reduction in stocking rates may be an economical benefit to your operation. Reducing stocking rates on pasture may done through selective culling or moving your herd to a drylot. These decisions and lists for culling priority should be included in your Drought Management Plan.

There are many options to consider prior to drought and these must be made by individual operations. One strategy that works for your operation may not work for everyone. Now is a great time to review your Drought Management Plan and begin to determine early decisions to be made.


The United States Drought Monitor is released weekly and can found at:

The United States Seasonal Drought Outlook is updated regularly at: