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?

Recovery Process

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.

What To Do Now

“One of the starting points is to get a good inventory of how much forage you currently have standing in the pasture,” McCollum says. “That will be the forage supply you have to work with right now.”

Then, adjust numbers with the idea that in order to have a chance to recover if it does rain, you need to have some amount of plant residue to cover the ground and capture rainfall.

“By making those adjustments, determining how much you need to leave on the ground and allocating the rest for cattle grazing, you have provided yourself some insurance that when it does begin to rain, you can capture part of that and start the recovery in terms of forage production. It also gives you a somewhat realistic picture of what kind of cattle numbers you can support in the event that it doesn’t rain or if it does rain, it’s not timely and you don’t produce any forage,” McCollum says  

After the rains

When the drought breaks – and it will sooner or later – that’s when cattlemen need to start managing for the next drought, Hart says. “You’ve got to have contingency plans in place before a drought hits and have some areas you’ve held back.”

That’s because nothing replaces rainfall. “Without rainfall, there’s no miracle cure to get grass to grow. How fast range plants recover following a drought is in direct relationship with what kind of condition they were in going into the drought. So, if you want to essentially minimize the length of the drought, make sure those plants are healthy, that you’re pulling off in time to where the recovery process is that much faster,” Hart says.