Drought Management Decisions - Summer

Subscribe to our free E-Newsletter, "Agri-News" (formerly RTW This Week)Agri-News
This Week
 Emergency hay and pasture | Alternate uses for crops | Dependable water source | Adjusted production inputs | Weather | Reducing livestock inventory | Government programs | Signs of stress

Emergency Hay and Pasture

If I need emergency hay or grain, or extra pasture, have I made arrangements to get it?
When drought is affecting hay and pasture production, consider looking for alternate feed sources before an emergency arises. Reacting to an emergency provides more stress and more chance of failure than activating a contingency plan ahead of time. Your contingency plan could include any or all of the following:

  • Have a one-year supply of feed for all livestock on hand. Supplementing with hay or grain on pasture may be necessary if pasture production is low.
  • Use annual crops or fall seeded annual crops for emergency pasture.
  • Purchase feed or know where you can get some if you need it.
  • Have pre-arranged trucking plans.
  • Use alternate feed sources.
  • Make arrangements to rent extra pasture if necessary.
Alternate Uses for Crops

Have I considered alternate uses for my crops?
When drought hits it can be devastating on crop yields. In some cases, it may not be worth harvesting crops for grain or forage for hay. In these situations it is important to consider alternate uses for crops and forage.

Drought-stressed crops may often be salvaged as livestock feed, but testing for nutritional value and harmful substances is extremely important. Nitrate toxicity and aflatoxins may be a problem in drought years. Depending on test results, feed amounts may need to be adjusted for animal nutrition and safety.

If forage plants show signs of drought stress, be careful about using them as fresh forage because nitrate levels may be high. A better option is to use plants as silage, because the silage fermentation process reduces nitrate levels. In either case, testing is critical for safe feeding as nitrate poisoning can be a problem in drought-stressed crops.

Test drought-stressed oats and barley for nutritional value. They often are reduced to empty hulls or a very light grain. The result is low energy and protein, and a limited feeding value for poultry and swine. Oats and barley may work well in combination with other livestock feeds. You may also want to consider silaging grain in situations where there is very little hay for winter feed. Corn quality usually is not a concern during drought; corn kernels may be smaller, but feeding value is not affected to the same degree as for oats and barley. Ear corn however, may be lower in nutritional value due to a higher cob to kernel ratio.

Consult with your livestock nutritionist or contact the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry's Ag-Info Centre (toll-free in Alberta:1-866-882-7677 and out of province 1-403-742-7901) for more information on grain and corn use.

Plowing it under
If your crop has no feed value or using it as livestock feed is not a viable alternative, there may be value in plowing the crop down for organic matter. Before deciding to plow down a devastated crop, consider the value of leaving the crop standing for the winter. That way the crop catches snow during the winter and soil erosion is reduced as well. The crop can then be plowed down for organic matter as part of spring tillage operations. Green manure may be a possibility as well, although most drought-stricken crops will be past the point of "green", however, some valuable nutrients may persist. Again, consider the value of the crop as a snow catch for the winter before deciding to cut it or plow it under.

Dependable Water Source

Have I secured a dependable water source?
Drought is usually recognized by its impact on crops, however its impact on livestock can be equally dramatic. Hot, dry weather increases the water needs of livestock and often decreases water supplies as well. Having a dependable water source or water acquisition plan is important for continuing herd health.

Water requirements can double for animals during hot weather. Although metabolic water (water produced by body metabolism) and water consumed with feed also contribute to daily water intake, voluntary consumption is how most of the animal's water requirements are met. Clean, fresh water is important. If animals do not meet their water needs, they may refuse to eat, causing decreased growth rates, sickness or even death.

Water supplies may become a problem as drought continues. Wells and piping on hand may be inadequate if water demand increases dramatically; shallow wells, dugouts or streams may dry up. An alternate water source or access to one is important. Some alternatives to consider are listed below.

  • The Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Water Pumping Program provides pumping equipment on a rental basis for filling farm dugouts that were not filled by run-off and precipitation.
  • Hauling water in or cattle out may be an alternative when usual water sources dry up, or are too far away to be accessed by pumping equipment.
  • If there are no other water stores available and there is insufficient water to maintain your herd, you may have to consider culling the herd.

Adjusted Production Inputs

Have I appropriately adjusted production inputs to reflect current moisture and market conditions?

.."The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
You labor and toil, put seed in the soil
Yet no rain will fall from the sky"

Adapted from the poem "To Mouse" with sincere apologies to Robert Burns

Deciding when to adjust your production inputs starts when the snow is still on the ground. By developing a contingency plan early, you can save yourself the stress and worry that comes with the dependence on Mother Nature for timely rains. The more information you can collect ahead of time, the easier that plan is to develop. Your contingency plan needs to include the following:
  • Your cost of production. In your cost of production analysis you need to develop possible scenarios of below average, average and above average yields along with a worst case/best case price for each crop that you plan to grow. Using this analysis, you can pre-determine which crop can give you the best returns given the possibility of poor growing conditions. This also lets you use your own figures to develop this analysis.
  • Scanning market prices and commentaries will assist you in deciding what the potential commodity prices are doing. This may help you in deciding different marketing alternatives.
  • Precipitation maps and climate information will assist you in comparing precipitation-to-date and forecasted precipitation to the average. Precipitation information is reported as part of the Agricultural Moisture Situation Updates and can help you determine the potential for drought on your farm.
You have decided what to plant, determined your cost of production, built your scenarios and guestimated the possibilities of drought. Now what? The next step is to assess what inputs you will need to optimize crop production this year. Water is the most limiting factor during times of drought. However, farmers have limited control over available amounts of this input.

Snow trapping, shelter belts and conservation tillage are just some of the soil moisture conservation techniques that have been used to conserve or store precipitation in the soil for subsequent crops. In Alberta, dryland farmers rely primarily on Mother Nature to provide sufficient quantities of growing season precipitation to grow crops.

Some inputs such as soil fertility and weed density, which we do have control over, are listed below.
  • Soil Testing. Proper nutrition is essential for satisfactory crop growth and production. The use of soil tests can help to determine the status of plant available nutrients and in turn develop fertilizer recommendations and achieve optimum crop production. The profit potential for farmers depends on producing enough crop per acre to keep production costs below the selling price. Efficient application of the correct types and amounts of fertilizers for the supply of the nutrients is an important part of achieving profitable yields.
  • Fertilize to meet the requirements of the crop for the expected yield due to drought. This can be determined by the soil test report or by contacting your local crop specialist for assistance.
  • Field scouting is another money saving step that you can use to minimize costs of pesticides. In terms of weed control, using early control measures that favor crop competition is the best plan. Scouting for insects and diseases weekly, and more frequently when pests are found, works to your advantage.
  • Economic thresholds have been developed for a number of insect pests. Use these as a guideline for making any decision.
As with any plan, you will need to make adjustments as weather and price change over the season. Time spent in the winter months developing your plan will pay dividends at harvest.

For additional information, see the links below. Weather

Am I monitoring the weather forecast?
As summer advances and conditions remain dry, farmers will have to monitor crop and pasture growth carefully. Contingency plans such as buying hay or moving cattle may have to be activated. Watching the forecast for any changes in the conditions will help farmers to make an informed decision.

Long-term forecasts for the next three to six months, or even longer, are available and may be worth considering. Farmers wondering how good long-term seasonal forecasts really are should keep in mind that temperature forecasts are more reliable than precipitation forecasts, because precipitation is more difficult to predict. Accuracy in spring temperature forecasts over the past two years for Alberta was very high, while the summer forecast accuracy was poor. It is also important to consider the local situation when interpreting the forecast.

Knowing what to expect over the short- and long-term can help you decide when to put your drought contingency plans into place.

Reducing Livestock Inventory

Should I consider reducing livestock inventory?
When you have exhausted all other ways to maintain herd performance during drought, selling unprofitable livestock may be your next best move. Consider culling the bottom 5 to 15%; for example, pregnancy testing and culling open cows and cows that are over 10 to 12 years of age. This will make the feeding situation better for the younger cows and replacement heifers so that they don't lose condition.

If things continue to worsen, you may you may need to look at selling the whole herd. The most pressing question in that decision is what would the net income (loss) per head have to be to justify holding the cattle for sale at a later date? Assembling cost and asset value information will help determine the appropriate sale date. There are resources that can help you through this process. Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has put together a Cow/Calf Analysis of the costs of maintaining a cow/calf herd that may provide some background for decision making.

Government Programs

Have I checked with federal and provincial government agencies for information on support programs, which may provide financial support during a drought?
The provincial and federal governments each contribute to a comprehensive business risk management package designed to help Alberta farmers manage risks. Producers are encouraged to contact their local Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) office for more information.

Signs of Stress

Have I noticed any signs of stress in myself or my family?
As drought conditions intensify through the summer months, many farmers and their families experience feelings of frustration and lack of control. These are signs of stress. A certain amount of stress is considered a normal part of doing business and actually helps motivate you to get things accomplished. Too much stress on the other hand, will impair your work performance, your relationships and your health. It is important to recognize the symptoms of stress and to deal with the causes before long-term damage is done.

Farming is considered one of the top 10 high stress occupations in North America. So even without the problems associated with drought, there is a high level of stress involved in the job you and your family members do each day. Long hours, undependable weather, decreased commodity prices, increased input prices, loan payments and a never-ending list of jobs that needed to be done yesterday, all contribute to your level of stress.

While you may not be able to control the source of your stress such as drought, you can manage its effect on your life. By recognizing the symptoms of stress and taking steps to manage or relieve the symptoms until the cause can be addressed, you will increase your job performance and decrease chance of physical illness.

If you, or someone you know is feeling stressed, it is important to get help as soon as possible. Family and friends are great sources of support as are family doctors who will discuss the problem and suggest options for treatment.

There are many crisis lines operating throughout the province that provide confidential and anonymous services to anyone looking for help dealing with the symptoms of stress.

  • Some Other Solution (SOS), a counselling service covering northeast Alberta, can be reached toll-free, 24-hours a day at 1-800-565-3801.
  • The Support Network covers northwest Alberta and provides a 24-hour suicide prevention and distress line at 1-800-232-7288. Those in the Greater Edmonton Area can call 780-482-HELP (4357).
  • Walk-in counselling is also available at The Support Network, #301 -11456 Jasper Ave, Edmonton Alberta. There is no fee and no appointment required. Call 780-482-0198 for further information.
  • PACE Crisis line (Providing Assistance, Counselling and Education) serves the Peace region with a 24-hour crisis line at 780-539-6666.
More information on drought management and preparedness

Other Documents in the Series

  Year-Round Drought Management Decisions
Drought Management Decisions - Summer - Current Document
Share via AddThis.com
For more information about the content of this document, contact Isabel Simons-Everet.
This information published to the web on June 15, 2001.
Last Reviewed/Revised on June 27, 2018.