Drought is a fact of life on Texas rangelands since “dry” years occur more often than “wet” years. Literally, drought is “normal” whereas years of good rainfall are the exception. Consequently, range managers are always suffering from, getting over, or preparing for drought. However, any predictions of when they will occur and how long they will last are merely speculation.
Mismanagement during drought is related to desertification, a departure from a healthy rangeland state. Rangeland ecosystems depend upon four main ecosystem processes in order to remain healthy. These are a properly functioning water cycle, effective energy capture and transfer, adequate nutrient cycling, and vegetation successional dynamics. If any of these processes are disrupted or fail, ecosystem function is impaired, production is diminished, and ecosystem health is at risk.
Drought has been defined as “prolonged dry weather, generally when precipitation is less than 75 percent of the average annual.” There are, however, several kinds of drought depending upon definition and impact. Meteorological drought is the degree of dryness measured in deficits from the “average.” Agricultural drought is the impact of dry weather on crop and forage production. Hydrological drought impacts water supplies (lakes levels, aquifer levels, etc.) Lastly, socioeconomic drought impacts economic and social systems.
Surviving drought requires planning for it. Drought is easily recognized once it has its full impact; however, it’s development begins slowly and can end abruptly when sufficient rainfall occurs. Hence, the critical decisions going into a drought are difficult to make for fear of premature decisions that can affect future income. These decisions should be based upon ranch operation and all levels of the organization – the strategic or top policy makers, the tactical or livestock policy level, and the operational level should be involved in drought planning.
The key to successful range management lies in the ability of the manager to predict and/or monitor future and current conditions and make necessary changes. Weather is uncontrollable, but certain aspects are reasonably predictable. A manager who survives a drought in the best possible financial situation with a rangeland capable of growing abundant quality forage can quickly capitalize on good rainfall years. The basic principle then becomes one of protecting the rangeland resources before and during drought years so that faster recovery and higher returns can be realized.