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Ranchers' adjustments to drought in western South Dakota, 1870-1990s: Creating sustainable operations in a marginal environment

Kenneth Charles Dagel, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Changes in drought risk resulting from potential climate change will impact agriculture most seriously in areas exhibiting a high degree of climatic variability such as the Great Plains. How an operator perceives this drought risk affects what counteractive measures, if any, are implemented. Success or failure of any operational adjustment may determine whether or not an individual can remain in business and at what level of achievement. The purpose of this research is to assess South Dakota ranchers' perceptions of a natural hazard that directly affects their livelihood and to identify what operational adjustments have been made in response to drought in the area since 1870. Content analysis of data from interviews with ranchers provides a number of attribute categories for description of drought. A matrix of similarity coefficients derived from the categories is analyzed to isolate associations of drought descriptors used to formulate a more general definition applicable to semi-arid environments. The adjustments made by South Dakota ranchers prior to 1930 to mitigate drought are compared with contemporary perceptions concerning drought and subsequent adjustments to assess the persistence of certain ranching practices. Results indicate that ranchers recognize drought as a major climatic hazard that they expect to occur on an unpredictable basis. The change in the manner of adjustment over time is important to an understanding of ranchers' appreciation of the unpredictable nature of Great Plains climate and their ability to incorporate adjustments that result in sustainable operations. Ranchers incorporate a limited number of adjustments that have been proven effective over many years. This research makes clear the role of individual rancher perception in determining the adjustments practiced to mitigate drought damage, the economic impact of dry periods exhibiting varying physical characteristics, and the importance of administrators obtaining as much localized information as possible prior to declaring a region a disaster area.

Subject Area

Geography|Agricultural economics|Range management

Recommended Citation

Dagel, Kenneth Charles, "Ranchers' adjustments to drought in western South Dakota, 1870-1990s: Creating sustainable operations in a marginal environment" (1994). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9519531.