Community Agriculture Alliance: Talking drought for 2021 |

Community Agriculture Alliance: Talking drought for 2021

Todd Hagenbuch
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Is it too early to start talking about the drought of 2021? No.

Rural landowners have been discussing drought since late last year, and while snow has fallen over the past week or two, it’s dry out there and has been for some time.

We went into our winter season on the heels of a summer that saw record heat and low moisture. Given the resulting exceptionally dry soils going into winter and the below-average moisture since, we’d need well-above-average snowfall in the next two months to avoid worsening conditions. As the 90-day forecast looks warm and dry, significant improvement is unlikely to happen. A “Miracle May” like we saw in 2015 could save us, but a colleague of mine recently determined that there’s only a 6% to 9% probability of that happening in any given year. Facing reality, it looks like landowners and ag operators should consider taking measures to manage the probable challenges of summer 2021.

Livestock number reduction is something no producer wants to contemplate, but if livestock numbers are at or above average, reducing herd numbers sooner rather than later may be warranted. Once cows have calved and sheep have lambed, the selling and shipping of pairs may be more difficult than the shipping of pregnant animals. The timing of this is important, however, as it is preferable to ship livestock before they hit the last two months of pregnancy. Many producers have been flirting with that time constraint over the past few weeks, but if it’s not too late, early sales should be considered.

If producers do need to reduce numbers, consider culling older cows and keeping additional heifers from your 2021 calving season. Keeping heifers will allow you to keep the genetic potential of your herd while also keeping an animal that requires less forage input than an older, mature animal.

Now is the time to be looking for additional pasture, too. Public land allotments will likely see number reductions due to less forage availability, and your pastures, leased or owned, will need to be stocked lighter and/or for less time. If possible, securing additional leased grazing land early will help you manage your resources more effectively, allowing you to move with changing conditions.

More than ever, consider the water sources in your pastures this year, and make sure you’re planning for the chance you’ll be hauling water if springs and intermittent waterways dry up.

There are many other strategies to consider when dealing with drought, so in the coming weeks, CSU Routt County Extension and our partners will be further examining how land and livestock managers can understand the conditions we’re facing and share tools that will help producers manage them.

From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 3, join the National Resources Conservation Service, Community Agriculture Alliance and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union via webinar to learn how snow surveys and the automated SNOTEL water-measuring system work. A follow-up, hands-on demonstration in the field to conduct a snow survey is offered on the morning of March 6. RVSPs are required for both events, and space for the field trip is limited. To attend, call the Extension office at 970-879-0825 or email

In the coming weeks, also be on the lookout for additional online drought programming from CSU Extension. The multi-week Livestock and Forage Growers Drought Series will cover topics ranging from weed management to alternative feed options to grasshopper control. Look for time and date information soon on the Routt County CSU Extension Facebook page or visit

Todd Hagenbuch is director and agriculture agent at CSU Routt County Extension.

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