Back in 1936, when Bob Dolan wrote “Cool Water,” the American West was struggling with one of the worst droughts in this country’s history. The song, made popular in 1948 by the Sons of the Pioneers, is so enduring that artists such as Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell released versions as well.

Cattlemen in drought-stricken Texas and Oklahoma, as well as a number of other states, may want to find their favorite version and take a listen. Whether it’s the Sons of the Pioneers or Fleetwood Mac, its story of a cowboy and his horse searching for a drink of cool, clear water speaks of hard times that remain etched in the psyche of the West even now.

It makes you wonder what kind of songs will be written about the summer of 2011. Maybe it will be a ballad of a cattleman who wisely waited for his pastures to recover before turning cattle, and cowboys, loose on the range.

While the industry has changed and cowboys no longer roam unfenced range, the effects of Mother Nature’s heavy hand know no boundaries. Cattlemen and their understanding of range management, however, have taken great leaps forward in their ability to deal with what Mother Nature dishes out.

Patience, patience

When it comes to the decision of when and how many cattle to turn out on drought-stressed pastures this spring, patience may be a virtue that ranchers will have to dig deep to find. With a cattle market practically screaming that it’s time to expand, even a hint of rain will tempt drought-stricken ranchers to stock up to take advantage.

That, says Ted McCollum, would be a mistake. That’s because, in the hardest-hit drought areas, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension beef specialist in Amarillo says he’s afraid there’s been some reduction in rangeland health due to the severe dryness.

“I’m not so certain there hasn’t been some root mass that’s been lost off the grass just because it hasn’t rained. If that’s the case, there’s probably been some damage done and it will take a while for those plants to recover and replenish that root mass,” he explains.

That means that, even if it does rain enough and at the right time to green things up this spring, there are two reasons you need to stay off drought-stressed pastures and allow them to recover.

“Number one, those plants are weak and lack vigor and we need to cover the ground up and give the plant a chance to recover some root mass. So we don’t need to be stocked up to normal.”

The second thing, he says, is what if you get fooled? What if it rains a little this winter and spring, things start greening up, you start thinking there will never be another bad day, and then Mother Nature shuts the valve tight again and we have a repeat of the summer of 2011?