MULHALL — For a long time, the beads of sweat from rancher John Pfeiffer's brow well outnumbered the raindrops from the sky over Pfeiffer Angus Farms in northern Logan County.
Even when it was cold, Pfeiffer was nervous as he stared at powder dry ponds. Now, he's smiling, and laughing as he stands beside a 15-foot-deep pond that is full.
The 60-year-old's ranch is still included in the moderate drought area of the U.S. Drought Monitor, and 72 percent of Oklahoma continues to experience moderate to exceptional drought.
This is not a happily-ever-after situation. But for Pfeiffer and at least some ranchers with nearly full or full ponds that sat dry for months, it's a happy-for-now scenario.
“About 45 days ago we were still in extreme drought,” Pfeiffer said. “This pond was totally dry, there was a little bitty puddle of water in the center of it that didn't amount to anything. The cows had quit drinking it because it was so bad. We didn't have any grass, we were feeding everything that the cows were getting and it was a pretty bleak situation.
“It was one of the worst times in all the time that I have been in the cattle business.”
Even further back, in February, Pfeiffer's wife told him, “You're going to have to get some kind of plan together of what you're going to do with the cows.”
Eight of their 25 ponds were dry. They had a well that “we lived off of all last summer” for water for the cattle.
He told his wife he had a plan.
“I hope it rains,” he said.
She replied, “That is not a plan.”
“I said, ‘Well, it seems like the best one because I really don't know where we can find any grass because of the drought,'” he said. “And I really didn't want to buy any more hay. I said ‘We'll go until April 15 and then we'll try to figure out what we're going to have to do if it hasn't rained.'”
He said he's been putting this cow herd of registered Angus cattle together for about 35 years. He didn't want to have to send them through a sale ring if he could help it.
But it started to rain, and that included some precipitation that continued slowly for a few days, he said. Rains kept coming over time. Pfeiffer said they not only gained subsoil moisture, but runoff. Now, although not all of his ponds are full, he doesn't have any that are dry.
The Oklahoma Mesonet weather network station at nearby Marshall has recorded 11.51 inches of rain this year. Of that, 5.62 inches fell in the last 30 days.
He said that with the subsoil moisture, he should have grass for his cattle through at least July.
“There should be some hay to put back to feed these cows with next winter,” Pfeiffer said. “And those things will make the decisions easier to make, too.”
Steve McKinley, acting executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association, also said many areas have received needed moisture and will be able produce needed forage to stop feeding hay and hopefully raise the hay needed to carry them through the next winter.
However, McKinley added, “There are still a lot of areas that are dry, and there are areas that have received moisture to raise needed forage, but haven't had the run off to replenish needed pond water.”
“Livestock drinking water is a must,” McKinley said. “Forage is next and as John did, we are all praying that we continue to get rain so that we can fill the ponds and grow needed forage.”
This pond that Pfeiffer stands beside now was also full in April and May 2012. And even though this drought extends back to October 2010 for some, a year ago the U.S. Drought Monitor showed only 15 percent of Oklahoma in moderate to exceptional drought. No area was in extreme drought, the worst category, at that time. But the drought returned, and he knows it could come again.
He also knows that whenever the drought does end, the effects of it will possibly still be felt by agricultural producers for some time.
McKinley said during the recent years of drought, not all producers were able to hang on. And he believes that even in the case of producers who have received rain, most are cautiously optimistic.
“When you are out of drinking water, hard decisions have to be made,” McKinley said.
Pfeiffer, for one, would like to think the drought is over.
“I'm not that naive,” Pfeiffer said. “I've lived in Oklahoma too long to think that, but there's no place else I'd rather be.”