The recovery period for drought-stressed pastures will vary, says Charles Hart, Texas AgriLife Extension range specialist at Stephenville. “Is that recovery 3-4 months after you start to get rain or a full year? It goes back to what the condition of the land was prior to the drought,” he says.

What’s more, there’s no good rule of thumb to follow because 2011-style droughts aren’t common, says Daren Redfearn, Oklahoma State University Extension forage and management specialist. It’s difficult to estimate how long it will take drought-damaged pastures to recover, he says, in part because lingering drought effects won’t disappear immediately with the onset of more typical precipitation patterns.

“Since long-term drought recovery isn’t common, there’s no good rule of thumb to follow,” Redfearn explains. “It could take several years for many pastures to fully recover. This is especially true if drought conditions continue, as some weather experts have predicted.”

If you do get rain, observe how much bare ground you have, Hart says. “There’s always a natural amount of bare ground out there, but if it’s excessive, that’s telling you your rangeland is still trying to recover.”

There’s a natural recovery process that takes place on drought-hit rangelands once it starts raining, Hart explains. “You’re going to see more weeds that first year. Then, following that, some of the perennial plants.”

So one has to decide whether it will help the recovery process to do some weed control and reduce the competition for the perennial grasses. “Or, are those weeds the only things out there holding the world together and it’s a natural succession process?” he asks.

The wages of patience

It may be tempting to stock up with cattle to take advantage of high market prices. But, from the perspective of long-term rangeland health, patience will be rewarded.

McCollum says researchers inventoried pastures around Sonora, TX, in the 1980s and compared their findings with records from the 1920s and ’30s. The comparison revealed the rangelands experienced some long-term and permanent changes in plant communities as a result of the Dust Bowl drought, and perhaps some less-than-adequate grazing management that followed those dry years.

According to Hart, those changes aren’t for the better. “Historically, in previous cases of severe drought, we see increases in plants like prickly pear and mesquite, some of the unwanted brush species, and decreases in the amount of forage plants.”

It’s possible, depending on the length and severity of the current drought, that some changes in plant communities will occur regardless of grazing pressure. But, taking a lesson from our forefathers, McCollum says that regardless of the grazing pressure your range is under right now, there are some management practices that can either hasten recovery once rainfall begins, or delay that recovery and perhaps permanently reduce production.