Why the Cow is Important for Rangeland Ecosystem Health

This past summer I had the privilege of giving a presentation at the Texas Wildlife Association’s annual convention. Visiting with various owners of smaller places that have no interest in raising livestock proved very educational. Some expressed that after buying very degraded ranches that had been abused for years by failing ranching enterprises, rest from grazing was phenomenal in rangeland recovery for the first five to ten years. Then after that recovery period the rangeland seemed to start going backwards. The grasses were becoming what appeared to be old and dying, bare soil was becoming more evident and erosion was increasing after what was originally believed to be a phenomenal recovery of the land. My discussion during the presentation was about continual improvement to the rangeland resource well over the ten years that they had experienced. This led to discussion of what was happening to those rested (over rested) places.

Grass plants need disturbance to produce growth nodes and tillers for new growth. Once a grass plant matures without impact from some outside source, (breaking off the old leaves-trampling them to the ground-burning them off-biting them off etc.) the plant goes into a ‘neutral’ mode that ultimately reduces the plant to a moribund state that does not produce new tillers and growth nodes. This results in a slow death from the center of the plant outwards. A well-planned grazing program, utilizing cattle and other livestock to intensely graze the plants then providing extended rest periods is a very effective way of reversing this issue.

The picture below is of ‘a very lonesome’ Switch grass plant. (Only one I have found within this pasture.) Cattle were moved out 29 days ago and the current dry conditions reflect slight growth the plant has achieved in this length of time. However, note the lack of green of the other grasses, this expresses the drought mitigating characteristics of deep rooted-healthy tall grasses. Continuous grazing would destroy any hope of increasing the coverage of the Switch grass.
Of other interest is the pictures skeletal remains of what I believe to be Horse Nettle. The leaves have been stripped off these plants and as pastures that have not been grazed show no signs of this, I assume the cattle did the stripping. No health issues have been observed, so poisoning is not at issue. I do note that I have observed several other ‘poisonous’ plants grazed by livestock over the years and assume that limited grazing of these ‘bad’ plants is not necessarily a bad thing. Smaller Perennial Broom Weed is one of the others and I suspect percentage of diet is a major factor.
Studying the rangeland and seeking to understand what and why certain things are happening is fascinating.DSC00875

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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.

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