The Complex World of Drought Management on Ranches

OCT 30, 2017    by TONI KLEMM

Photo: Toni Klemm

For the last two years I have been studying decision making in winter wheat farming in the Southern Great Plains. I want to help forecasters provide seasonal climate forecasts that do a better job of warning farmers of upcoming bad conditions, such as drought, extreme rainfall, or heat.

Now, seasonal forecasts are nothing new. The National Weather Service has been issuing them for decades. But farmers don’t use them very much because they are hard to understand and overall don’t contain the sort of information farmers need to make decisions.

So all we need are better tailored forecasts and crop failure is a thing of the past? Unfortunately that’s not quite the case.

Hailey Wilmer, a Ph.D. graduate from Colorado State University who currently works as a postdoc at the USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and María Fernández-Giménez, a professor at CSU, studied ranchers in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to gain deeper insights into the social dimensions of ranching decisions related to drought. The two researchers found that besides the weather forecast, decisions are often shaped by many other factors, including traditions, personalities, relationships and interactions with fellow ranchers, risk aversion, and ranchers’ financial goals.

Conducting 38 interviews with male and female ranchers, Wilmer and her co-author found four reoccurring patterns of how these social factors affect decisions and adaptive actions to mitigate drought on the ranch.

1. Security over profit
    Some ranchers, learning from peers and past experiences, prioritized maintaining a financially viable ranch over the long run by not overstocking their ranch in good times and maintaining feed and a minimum number of “seed cattle” even through bad droughts. “If you will stock conservatively when the severe droughts hit you will be able to stay longer and maintain your seed stock to where everyone else has already sold their seed stock or they are all leasing additional pastures somewhere else,” as one New Mexico rancher put it.

2. Facing drought with efficiency
    To prepare for bad times, some ranchers use good times to build financial buffers that would carry them through droughts. During drought, they reduce the number of cattle or change grazing patterns so that existing grassland vegetation lasts longer. Although these ranchers tried to avoid risk, if they saw other ranchers succeed with a risky decision, they were inclined to try it, too. In times of need ranchers also help out each other, share expertise, or find additional forage. When the quantity of cattle went down, improving their quality was the top priority for most of these ranchers.

3. Diversified income
    Not all ranchers were ranchers all their lives. Some bought ranches after retiring from another career, knowing it is a great risk. During drought, they relied on a range of income, for example on their pension, and they seem to prefer playing it safe. “I think we’ve decided that we’re going to play defense as far as the climate risk goes, as opposed to try[ing] to maximize stocking or to continue to grow or expand the operation,” explained one rancher. They also plan ahead, for example by using weather and climate data to bump up or reduce stocking rates. “We don’t like to do crisis management. We like to sort of prepare.”

4. Living with the “new normal”
    The largest group of ranchers, thirteen, seem to have mastered the art of drought management, and was not shy to show it. They boasted experimental approaches to drought management, savvy business management practices, and emphasized their successful careers as quality cattle producers and natural resource stewards, all while not relying on consultants or agricultural extension. “Trying something new” and “not being stuck in a rut” were their guiding principles. If drought forces them to reduce their herd, these ranchers, like many of their peers, try to improve quality. “If drought is going to cut me back two hundred calves or three hundred calves, or whatever the number is, I have to make that up with quality.” All this, however, seemed to be essential, as many of these ranchers said living in drought for them is the “new normal”. “Well, we kind of been in a drought ever since we’ve had this place.”

These findings show that decisions in the real world are often a lot more complex than we often appreciate. And it is a particular struggle for those of us who work in boundary organizations to understand both scientists and users and to help both sides understand each other and facilitate collaborations. “This paper pushed me toward looking at how different groups ‘know what they know’ and how that influences not just management practices, but also how we interact and set goals,” says Wilmer.

Despite the limitations of this study — small sample sizes, for example, always make it difficult to generalize results to a larger population — it showed me how diverse and complicated the world of agriculture is, and how little we understand of it. Quantitative or technological approaches are not always enough to make a positive change in agricultural decision-making. If we want to help farmers and ranchers, not only do we need to know how to create better forecasts, but also how important these forecasts are among everything else that plays a role in the real world of farming and ranching.

Hailey Wilmer and María Fernández-Giménez (2015): Rethinking rancher decision-making: a grounded theory of ranching approaches to drought and succession management. The Rangeland Journal, 37, 517-528.

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