What happened to the amazing grasslands that early European man found on the Great Plains?

Farm Bulletin No. 10 – GRASSES AND FORAGE PLANTS – BY H. L. Bentley, Special Agent in Charge of Grass Experiments at Abilene, Texas 1898.

“Stockmen traveling in San Saba, Tom Green and Taylor counties in 1876 said, Grass everywhere 1 to 3 feet high sometimes as high as cows’ backs on uplands as well as bottoms. At that time there is little doubt that the ranges would have supported 300 head of cattle per square mile.  It is claimed that 300 A.U. per section was the common average rate 10 years ago!  (1888) Today it requires at least 10 acres per head (64 A.U. per section) and it is often considered not the best policy to put more than 50 cows to the section.”

“This overstocking of the ranges has continued year after year, through good seasons and bad ones, until it is of the opinion of some of the most experienced cattlemen of central Texas that the injury has gone almost past the point where redemption is possible. The ranges have been almost ruined, and if not renewed will soon be past all hope of permanent improvement.”

Think trough what these last two paragraphs said. In 1876 three hundred head of cattle per section of rangeland, after 10 years it was recognized that it would have been best if 150 head were the starting number, yet for 10 continuous years the rangeland was able to support those numbers. Those are grazing rates that would rival the best farm land available, highly irrigated and fertilized, with new crops coming available on a year-round basis. Impossible, yet it is documented that it what was done. (Granted at the expense of the rangeland resource.)

Ask yourself how in the world was this possible? The grasses were the best available, Indian-Big Blue-Switch-Eastern Gama, deep rooted (possibly 15 to 20 feet deep-even deeper according to some scientists), healthy soils that stored huge amounts of water within that soil profile, that the root system was feeding with the carbon being sequestered. The microbes-earth worms and all of those good things that grow in a healthy soil profile, providing nutrients for the plants. Those tall-deep rooted-healthy plants had enough energy stored in their roots systems to provide that grazing, at least until the roots used their surplus energy, resulting in their death. (It is worth noting that the plant list that Mr. Bentley provides in his article did not include those grass’ listed above.) Had those grass’ already disappeared as a result of those 10 years of heavy-continuous grazing?

In 1898 some 20 years after the cattle grazing era began, it was recognized that much of the pristine rangeland had already disappeared, yet in 2019 many grazers of the land are still managing the land in much the same way. (Although at considerably smaller numbers.) Yes, virtually all producers want to “Leave the land in better shape for their kids.” Millions and millions of dollars are spent trying to reclaim the rangeland, very successfully many times only to see the same old process of ‘Here comes the brush again’ or ‘Drought is much more prevalent than ever before.’ Those are only symptoms of the overall cause. POOR GRAZING MANAGEMENT

 

Stopping active erosion is one of the first things observed when utilizing an effective grazing program. This former ‘ditch or wash’ is recovering well.

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Rangelands and Ranching: A Study of Proper Use of Rangelands & the Environment by Frank S Price

My son and I ranch a cow-calf, wooled sheep and hair sheep operation in West Central Texas. We operate 7 different grazing units and utilize a single herd, traditional pasture grazing program within all these units. My son represents is the 5th generation of this enterprise that was started in 1876 by my great grandfather. He and his brother began by driving a herd of cattle from Ennis Texas to Santa Anna Texas, ultimately driving the herd of cattle they had built to Kansas markets and returned to Sterling County, to begin a permanent ranching operation. Rainfall within our scattered operations runs from 17” to 20”. The winters, while going into the single digits on occasion are relatively mild compared to ranches further north, resulting in mostly mild winters producing usable cool season growth along with the dominant warm season plants.

One thought on “What happened to the amazing grasslands that early European man found on the Great Plains?”

  1. Wow 143 years ago, Look at what has happen since then amazing. Nothing on the grass going part of ranching(since 1876) We know less about ranching than we did 143 yrs ago, Are much poorer for it too, With all the advances in everything but understanding how to grow grass, Ranching has become one of the things of the past, Now at this time we can do so much more to grow grass/fix the range, Our endeavor on the the land is very much economically sound, Sun shine,rain fall,forage grown and consumed by livestock, Livestock marketed for income. Bad part is that is not the standard of ranching. With a lot of unprofitable approaches based on the fact that we are not understanding the working of ranching, Financially it is doomed, Outside of the simplest plan ranching may not be viable in the future to everyone and the ecological damage could very well be over whelming, Much more than now.
    Good news is we can do better, lots of resources out there and plenty of good people to learn from. Regeneration of our ranch lands is top of the list.

    Like

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