Creek Bank Recovery from Past Grazing Mistakes

An excellent example of recovery of a formerly erosive creek, as at one time it was difficult to cross a horse at this location. As previously noted, creeks and riparian areas are the first to recover when a graze-rest grazing plan is put in place. While this can’t be considered a riparian area, as there is no water present, historical information indicates that early settlers to the area noted that this was within the area of the last ‘permanent’ water resources as one goes west along Lacy Creek. It is doubted that this water will ever be present on a continuing basis in the future, but with lots of TLC up stream (Grazing Management) it just might happen.

This photo was taken during the ‘warm-growing season’. The excellent growing conditions of the summer of 2021 have succumbed to excessively dry conditions this fall. Am grateful the sound grazing management has provided the grazing forage to see us through the cold and dry times. Hopefully the rains will come soon as cool season perennials are common now that the rangeland has begun to recover from past grazing mistakes. It is estimated that 25% of the grasses in this photo are cool season plants. (Canada Wildrye, Texas Bluegrass, Western Wheat and Texas Winter grass)

Formerly Erosive Creek Bank, Repaired with Proper Grazing Management

Drought is Always a Consideration

We continually talk of grazing management, grazing density, plant diversity and countless other issues to improve our grazing resources. Hopefully resulting in better grazing conditions and above all a healthier ecosystem that provides benefits not only to the ranching community, but the urban public that is finding improving rangeland conditions are beneficial to all, even those that reside in high population areas.

For those rangelands west of the 100th meridian, perhaps the greatest challenge of grazing management is preparing for the next drought which is looming ‘just around the corner’. When the grazing manager finds or understands that preparation for drought is no different than improving his rangeland during wet or what some call normal rainfall conditions. (In my area of ranching normal is dry or drought conditions. In the last 55 years observing rainfall conditions, I estimate that we have survived over 9 to 10 droughty related times. Some more prolonged and severe than others, from 6 months to 3 years. Perhaps better said an extended dry spell averaging every 5 to 7 years.) Those rangelands that have been managed under the influence of a properly applied grazing-recovery from grazing program, during the good years, always come through the extended dry spells in better condition than those lands that are “Used to the fullest” during the wet spells, and not given the opportunity to recover and build soil health.

In short, well managed lands are less prone to the devastating effects of drought than those lands that are taken advantage of during good growing conditions. The opportunity to provide a dependable income for the rancher’s family is greatly enhanced when drought is no longer an ongoing part of the operation. (Or at least the severity of it.) Reduction of livestock numbers at drought initiated low prices and purchasing-feeding high-cost drought feed are both huge when calculating ranch profitability.

The below picture is of Southwestern Bristle Grass a plant that I did not know existed a few years back. Somewhat similar the Plains Bristle Grass, it has a much wider leaf and appears to be much more drought tolerant and palatable than its cousin. Cattle will take a bite of it just about every time, even when passing up the Plains Bristle. It is increasing in coverage at a rapid rate and ultimately may be one of our better grasses. Thanks to grazing program utilizing the REST-GRAZE-REST-GRAZE formula.

May be an image of grass and nature
Photo provided by Ward Whitworth

Things can go wrong

The importance of carefully monitoring rangeland conditions is essential when working with grazing lands. Conditions or issues can be averted or at least addressed if the grazing manager is closely watching the rangeland and livestock performance. As the picture of Indian grass shows, this once healthy-vigorous plant (Photo 2) has become moribund and has ceased to be a healthy contributor to the rangelands improving health. The dark brown to black area is what used to be a thriving Indian grass plant, due to lack of animal impact or any other disturbance to cause new growth nodes to produce new growth the leaf structure has slowly died. (Note the center of the plant has hollowed out with dead material.) Yet in its struggle to survive green shoots of new growth are occurring. Think what the root structure must look like, probably much like what we see on the surface.

The second picture is of the same plant or plants three years earlier, a dramatic change at best. What happened? Low density grazing? Rest period to long? Drought? Manager needs to step up his management program? Possibly all the above except for drought, which many times is wrongly given the blame for management mistakes. Indian grass and its deep strong root system is one of the most drought tolerant grasses out there, provided the grazing program is adapted to its health requirements. Graze-Rest-Graze-Rest.

The Better it Gets the Faster it Gets Better. UNLESS

What did our rangelands look like prior to settlement?

On the first of September much of the rangeland that we operate will have been green for more than 130 days. This has been an unheard-of grass growing event with the relatively cool summer with no big rainfall events, however well timed and productive smaller rains have provided the growing event of a lifetime. Yes, this has been extremely beneficial for all ranchers in the area and those that are working with a well-planned graze-rest program have produced rangeland conditions riveling perhaps the best in many grazers’ lifetime. Following through and continuing with the graze-rest programs will move those ranchmen’s management endeavors to new heights.

While the assumption can be made that grazing conditions are not like Charlie Goodnight saw when traveling through the Concho’s in 1857, the pictures depict, perhaps, a small glimpse of what he saw. (Perhaps less the cedar trees) Sideoats, Little Blue, Bush Sunflower, Indian Grass, Old World Bluestems (That Charlie certainly didn’t see as they are introduced plants) and numerous others of small population but of equal importance, provide the diversity essential for building soil health, storing of carbon and environmentally sound grasslands.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER

Indian Grass-Little Bluestem-Old World Bluestem-Side Oats
Side Oats-Little Bluestem-Tall Drop Seed

It is Only a Bunch of Rocks

Many times, a rancher makes the statement that “not much will grow on these rocks”. Time and effective grazing management practices are proving this to be incorrect. Proper length of rest and grazing of those rocky areas are proving to be among the first areas to show dramatic improvement. Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and others of the deeper-rooted grasses seem to like the fractured limestone rocks of West Texas and some of the rockier areas that show little topsoil are beginning to team with good cover of healthy plants.

Why is this taking place? Maybe the rocks at the surface concentrate the limited rainfall. Maybe those rocks help protect new and even older plants from grazing. Perhaps the slopes and draws where the rocks seem to be most prevalent, concentrate the rainfall in areas that used to be streams and creeks of flowing water, providing more moisture for growth.

As the pictures depict: Big Blue seems to like the same areas as the shin oak prefers, much the same as a former post showed of Indiangrass. Granted the Big Blue pictured are young plants that have grown with the rare occurrence of this year’s almost ideal growing conditions. (Hopefully your area has been blessed with this ‘anomaly’.) It will be exciting to watch over time to see if these youngsters survive the drought like conditions that are sure to follow this growing event. With the continuation of the graze-rest program I am betting they do.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER

Big Blue on Rocky Hillside
Big Blue Growing Within Dense Limestone Shinnery

Pigeon Berry

Found this specimen growing in the pasture this past week. It is a first for me, as I do not remember seeing it before. Come to find out it is a popular ground cover plant for gardeners and when I showed Ginger the photo her immediate comment was ‘You can bring that one home and plant it.’ (We have an ongoing battle with the plants I wish so plant around the house and those that she wants. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.) May take her up on this one.

Pigeon Berry is one of those perennial natives that is highly preferred by livestock and wildlife alike and perhaps another one of those positive rangeland health indicators. The beauty and resilience of well cared for, healthy rangelands is an awesome sight to see. Take care that the land you are associated with is protected and the tinder loving care of it is a priority. Do not let is get away.

Observing What Cattle Graze

Watching cattle graze and asking why they eat what they do, can be considered a waste of valuable time for some, but not when the manger is seeking to accomplish the goal of rangeland improvement and understanding why certain things are happening to the rangeland resource, the study can be quite interesting.

At first glance, what the cow, sheep or goat eats appears to be somewhat indiscriminate, as she has her head down and does not appear to be focusing on certain plants. However, when she bites into a plant that seems to have a better flavor-more succulent-easier to chew- more nutritious??-contain a particular nutrient that she is craving??, she will concentrate on that plant for a few moments then move to the next area. (One thing of note: The higher the density of grazing animals in a given area the less discriminant they are. Competition for grazing space can be an interesting aspect of how the grassland manager manipulates his livestock.)

What plants do they prefer? Why are some grazed shorter than others at first bite? (Switchgrass, Indiangrass, Kline grass, Sideoats and many others will have the top 1/3 to ½ of the plant grazed the first round. Other plants will be grazed to a noticeably short level up to 90% the first grazing even in good growing conditions, but then totally avoided during other times. (Old World Bluestems, Rough Tridens and Sand Drop Seed)

 ‘Take half leave half’ I wonder. Each plant appears to have developed growth characteristics that promote survival and adaptation to the grazing animal’s preferences. Grassland management is not an exact science. The many variables cause for numerous undeterminable equations.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER.

Pictures depict Switchgrass prior to and after one day of grazing. It is a highly preferred grazing plant.

Indian Grass versus Shin Oak

Have been watching this area of Indian grass mixed within shin oak patch for some time. Over the last three years the Indian grass and occasionally some Little Bluestem has virtually filled all the open areas (interspacing) within the shin oak area. At one time this was a heavy Red-Blue Berry Cedar area with mixed oaks virtually no grass as density of brush would not allow it. Perhaps this Indian grass was a survivor of the past protected by the heavy cedar cover. The brush management (released) the Indian so that it could thrive within its new environment. Many times, the rangeland manager is not aware of the surviving plants from days gone by because of poor grazing management and the released grass is consumed and quickly killed by livestock under a continuous grazing program. However, when a well planed graze-rest program is in place (Preferably prior to brush management) the Indian grass can flourish and begin to revive the rangelands of old with dense populations of tall-deep rooted drought resistant grasses.

It will be interesting to watch and see whether the Indian grass or the shin oak dominates the area over time. Most would say the Indian has no chance as the shin oak is so aggressive. Perhaps an incorrect assumption with the current grazing program. We will see.

Switchgrass: One of the Big Four

While many areas of West Texas are suffering through drought conditions, the excellent growing conditions some are experiencing this year are magnified on rangeland that has been under a properly applied graze-rest program. This photo, taken in western Sterling County, is one of the largest pure stands of native Switchgrass rangeland in memory. (Not planted or expensive land preparation utilized, only nature taking advantage of climatic and management conditions.) It is interesting that some Johnson Grass can be found in the immediate vicinity, but the Switchgrass is dominant and virtually a pure stand, bringing up questions of diversity in a native rangeland setting.  Close observation shows some Sideoats scattered within the dense stand of Switch, resulting in expression of one of nature’s rules, DIVERSITY IS KING.)

The photo puts the imagination to flourishing about the wonderment of tales of long ago, about stirrup high grass and phenomenal stocking rates of the early cattlemen in the area. This Switchgrass savanna is in an overflow area and has stabilized the soil profile, making it very resistant to erosion. Think how heavy a rainfall event will have to be to create a flooding issue across this tributary of Lacy Creek and then it will run virtually clear water.

Will this newly created grassland sill be vibrant during the next ‘dry spell’? Certainly not as beautiful as the photo of today shows, but with careful planning and continued graze-rest that, dry spell will not be as significant of a drought as poorly grazed areas. (Perhaps will not be considered a drought at all.)

It will be interesting to watch the scattered Mesquite within the Switchgrass and see what its response to intense competition will be. Most likely those mesquites will remain small with continued healthy grazing management and PERHAPS few seedlings will survive or germinate.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER

Switchgrass Savanna with Sideoats

Texas Winter Grass an Excellent Starting Environment for Higher Succession Plants

Established Texas Winter Grass can provide an excellent area for higher succession plants such as Sideoats Gramma to take root and move the rangeland ecosystem forward, improving the drought resistance of the landscape. The partial shading of the soil allows limited available moisture to not be lost to evaporation, and the resulting ground litter from decay and animal trampling (Even the hated spear seeds) provide extra humus and slows water movement reducing the loss of rainfall due to runoff. All resulting in effective use of available rainfall. This positive scenario can provide excellent conditions for seedling establishment of higher succession plants that provide deep rooted, highly palatable drought resistant forage. This phenomenon is seldom seen under continuously grazed rangelands, but with a controlled graze-rest program the possibility is strong.

Zoom in on the photo to examine the ‘spear grass’ hulls remaining from the dropped ‘spears’ and take note of the excellent stand of Sideoats growing within the Winter Grass. Dual season grazing at its best or at least at the current succession level. It can get much better with even higher succession plants that will establish and flourish with continued tender loving care.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER.