With 1,200 cow-calf pairs to feed, Dave Hamilton of Thedford, Nebraska, shares how he handled drought management. “In 2006 and 2009,” Hamilton says, “we culled deeper in the fall at preg-testing time. It also required more purchased feeds to get us through.”

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Emeritus Editor
Lynn Jaynes retired as an editor in 2023.

The drought of 2012 required more complicated management. Hamilton says the more recent drought was the first time he had to depopulate, selling 12 percent of the cows due to drought, in addition to the regularly culled 15 percent. But depopulating wasn’t his first strategy, only one of several.

Hamilton says in the 2012 drought he first advanced the grazing system on his 18,000 acres or range, rotating cows earlier and faster through his planned rotational grazing system. Where his system might usually have called for the cattle to be in pasture No. 3, by mid-July they might have already rotated through to pasture No. 7.

His drought strategy included setting a target date – in his case, a target date for receiving rainfall. Hamilton says, “I had a target date – if we didn’t receive rain by July 15 that year, at that point I made a decision to wean early.” When rain didn’t come by the target date, the weaning date was set for early August (instead of mid-September or early October), which would immediately reduce the cows’ maintenance requirements by one-third.

Dave Hamilton has developed a number of windmills and wells to serve the cattle Because Hamilton had anticipated drought based on the long-term forecast, he had sorted all cows 10 years and older, along with lower-producing cows, into a separate grazing group. The second strategy for drought management included quick liquidation of this group – an immediate sell-off by his next target date – Aug. 15. There were about 100 head in this group.


Because Hamilton usually winter grazes on rangeland, his third drought management strategy was to send a third of the cow herd to graze leased cornstalks in south-central Nebraska. Nearby cornstalk fields weren’t an option because cattle on regular winter contracts occupied them.

Hamilton says, “We utilized cornstalks during a couple of the other drought years as well. Cornstalks are a great way to winter cows. There are two big factors here – one is freight, getting cows to cornstalks and back home.

The other factor is care – typically in corn-growing country they utilize all single hot-wire fences, and I worry about a blizzard where a cow might drift miles away, and then you’re not there to monitor that. But cornstalks can be a great way to winter cattle, and they don’t require much protein supplement.”

The cows that hadn’t been sold or sent to cornstalks were fenced with electric fencing into smaller lots in pasture corners where they were drylotted through the winter and fed hay. “So that year, there was no winter grazing. There wasn’t enough forage for summer grazing and zero regrowth,” Hamilton says.

Hamilton also says simply using a rotational grazing system has drought management built into it. He says, “Plant health and vigor carries you through drought better. And they’ll recover more quickly because of a healthier system and plant community.”

The rancher just starting out

Lon Larsen now leases Hamilton’s range, his cows and his equipment. Only 18 months into the lease, he must prepare for a drought possibility without the cushion a long-time rancher may have in cash reserves. Larsen says, “One of the things about our philosophy going in [to this lease] was to avoid as much debt as possible.

At any given time, if we had a big disaster, we could go ahead and liquidate and I think that’s important. We didn’t want to get in over our heads.” He believes it pays to be nimble, from a marketing standpoint, to manage risk.

Larsen says the second part of his strategy is to have a close relationship with his lender. He says, “It’s been my philosophy and my experience in managing other ranches to really be straight-up and forthright with finances and make sure everyone is aware of what’s going on.”

He says that in the cattle industry, bankers realize that one year a rancher might make quite a bit of money, and another year the rancher might not make anything or may even carry some debt and not meet commitments. But he firmly believes you have to be up-front with them and, if you are, the banker will be flexible.

Larsen says they were also careful to build flexibility into the lease agreement to address disasters, so if cows died in a blizzard or another catastrophic event happened, the lease could be adjusted. His lease is reviewed annually, and adjustments are made at that time. He stresses the importance of communication between lessee and lessor, saying this aspect prevents misunderstanding and encourages better decisions.

Another aspect of Larsen’s drought management was to make sure things were spelled out in the insurance coverage to address specific conditions. Larsen says, “So I’m not sure we have all of our bases covered in that way, but I think the most important thing is just being up-front – that’s been our philosophy from the get-go and are some of the values we live by personally, too.”

Drought planning

Droughts certainly aren’t new, but we can predict with absolute accuracy that there will be another one … someday. We may not know a lot about the weather, but we know more than we used to. Bruce Carpenter, extension livestock specialist with Texas A&M, says, “I think people who pay attention to reputable climatologists and long-term climate predictions have an advantage.

The science is not perfect, but it is far better than we used to have. Knowing the duration of a drought is often as big or a bigger challenge.”

As Texas experienced a severe drought in 2011 and 2012, the Texas A&M University system provided key points to help ranchers survive (Planning: The key to surviving drought).

  • Prioritize strategic ranch goals – It may sound over-simplified, but really, what are your goals? Is it to hold onto the land or (not and) hold onto the cows? What if you couldn’t keep both? Is your goal to prevent long-term damage to the forages? Is your first concern keeping the integrity of the breeding herd intact? And can you prioritize these, in the event you would need to liquefy assets?

  • List available ranch resources – Keep a general list of resources, such as hay supplies or other feed, pasture resources, potential pasture leases you might be able to obtain, potential buyers or marketing options in case of herd reductions.

  • Select the appropriate enterprises – Breaking the ranch into separate enterprises, and managing them separately, can help you make better decisions when it comes to the tough choices. Stocker animals, for instance, can be a flexible item during a restricted grazing year without sacrificing a breeding herd.

    In general, diversity of income from enterprises can help pull you through a mild or severe drought. And as part of that mix, an off-ranch income option can also come in handy.

  • Develop a plan for each enterprise – Each enterprise (stockers, replacement heifers, breeding herd, feeders, hay) should have its own drought strategy. Perhaps the most crucial element of this exercise is to calendar critical dates when decisions must be made.

    If a critical level of rainfall, for instance, does not fall by a scheduled date, then stage one of the drought plan should be instigated, whether that includes stock reductions, purchased feeds or livestock relocation.

  • Plan for resource flow – This is where you must involve the bookkeeper (or at least the bookkeeping side of your brain). From a financial standpoint, you must know cost of production for each enterprise and where the minimum levels of production are to cover overhead expenses and cash flow needs.

    When you can no longer meet the minimum levels, you must either make decisions that reduce costs or use available financial reserves (assuming you have some built before the drought occurs).

  • Implement and monitor – The most limiting factor during drought is forage production. Continually monitoring forage supplies and inventorying these resources will make the decisions clearer. And conditions change; the drought may worsen quicker than anticipated or it may abate slightly.

    Carpenter says, “A good, conservative plan with flexibility incorporated will help you be ready for what we cannot predict.”

Carpenter says, “Each one is different, and there are no recipes for surviving, except maybe ‘have a plan’ and ‘work the plan’ as best you can for your situation, resources and long-term ranch goals.

At a bare minimum, I recommend people use this culling strategy: Cull the old ones first, the young ones next, try to keep the mid-aged best producers until last, and no matter the age class, cull any of them before they become poor in body condition and lose value.”   end mark

PHOTO 1: Dave Hamilton’s herd near Thedford, Nebraska, is still building in response to the drought of 2012 when he culled deeper and weaned calves earlier. The grass situation has improved a great deal since then, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons learned during that period.

PHOTO 2: Having divided his ranch into 60 pastures, Dave Hamilton has developed a number of windmills and wells to serve the cattle in each unit. Photos by Lynn Jaynes.

Lynn Jaynes