Proper rangeland management is essential for environmental and ranch sustainability
Author: 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.
White rangeland is composed of narrow leafed, slow growing drought tolerant grasses. Three awns, many of the Tridens and even Hooded Windmill are among the many white grasses. Regretfully most of the rangelands of the western United States are dominantly white with very few red grasses found. Lack of proper grazing management has caused this to happen as use of livestock under continuous grazing and over rest (Gray rangeland) has caused the red grasses to die over time with the white grasses replacing them. White grasses are not necessarily all bad. Using Hooded windmill for a comparison, it is well liked by cattle during the growing season even if it is dormant due to dry weather. Even Black Grama matures in the winter to a white color, it is known to be a highly favored grass in western areas. The color comparisons are for quick visual determining of the general health of the rangeland, close inspection and identification of the individual plants is always the best for sound rangeland analysis.
An interesting study of these colored rangelands can be made as the highway rights-of-way are mowed after frost. Many times, the right-of-way will show a mix of red and white after the mowing demonstrating what color quality rangeland can potentially look like. (KR Bluestem can lead to considerable discussion here.) Now look across the fence onto the grazed range, sadly in many cases no red can be found and if it is found, most likely one of two things is taking place. Perhaps the rainfall and average humidity is higher resulting in more red range or, if in dryer areas, red in the pasture is a good indicator of a grazing manager that understands proper grazing management and applies this knowledge within his grazing of livestock. While taking note of the range color, many times it is not dominant red or white, it is gray indicating severely declining range conditions. We will cover this one next time.
In 2011 this photo would have been much different as this canyon was a solid mass of Blueberry Cedar (Very difficult to ride across, even impossible in places.) After a wildfire passed through, nature has replaced the Blueberry with Flameleaf Sumac, Shin oak and the grasses are beginning to take ahold where there was very little prior to the fire. Some of the skeletons of the Cedar are visible, much of it was over 20’ high. The fire was so intense that all that was left of the larger trees was an outline of ash showing the limb structure laying on the ground.
Moving to a new paradigm of consistent-sustainable rangeland improvement is not a simple process but involves many changes to the grazing managers use of the tools available to him. While these tools are not complex in themselves applying them in the order and intensity necessary to complete the task can be a challenging process. Hopefully, the many posts I have sent in the past have eluded to and clarified how to begin the process. A continuing graze-rest program is the first of these management processes.
The picture below depicts what can happen over time when that graze-rest process is in place for all seasons of growth.
Canada Wildrye is increasing in density and availability for livestock to graze during a time of year that many producers believe there is no alternative to maintaining livestock condition other than an expensive feeding program, in particular during an extended dry spell. This photo proves there can be another alternative at little cost to the producer other than the intensity of management.
Many, if not most, in the grazing management or range management field seem to think the answer to poor grazing conditions is the result of high livestock numbers. While this certainly has a bearing on grassland health it is not the total answer to the question. When properly applied, reducing numbers is only part of the solution, rest from grazing is essential and most likely the primary issue. (Reducing numbers can actually cause rangeland health issues over the long haul as plants can get old and moribund due to lack of animal impact.)
When observing livestock grazing ‘Ice-cream grasses’ (Some call them decreasers) one finds that they are so palatable that when cattle find them present on the rangeland they will graze it to the ground and when that grass tries to recover from continuous grazing that plant is almost immediately grazed to the ground again and again, thus it slowly dies as it cannot recover from the continuous grazing. (Starved to death as roots can’t replace lost energy reserves.) This is the reason that Mr. Bentley in 1898 had a hard time finding Indian Grass, Eastern Gamma Grass and Big Bluestem on the rangelands in Abilene Texas area. In fact, in his report to the Department of Agriculture, he stated that some grasses were approaching ‘extinction’ at the time of writing. (1898) Thankfully this extinction has not occurred, and we can still find seed sources of these amazing plants, when a properly applied graze-rest program is utilized. (Awesome)
Click on the below Texas GLC web site to read the short article. Mr. Bentley understood what was happening on the rangeland 122 years ago. It is time we take the time to understand.
Yes in 1898 the problem was recognized and published, yet even today in 2020 most are not willing to accept the fact that rest from grazing is critical when asking the rangeland for maximum, sustainable and profitable production.
Photo below shows Indian and Big Blue after brush management. This would not occur if continuous grazing were being practiced and certainly would not be sustained five years post brush management.
The Monarch Butterfly seems to have enjoyed a successful year, as three waves of the little critters have visited our area this month, presumably on their way to Mexico. I am unsure if the rebound in numbers is due to conservation efforts to replenish the host Milk Weeds or if nature simply provided the correct climatic conditions. Perhaps it is the result of both, but in any event, it is interesting that milk weeds, in particular Antelope-Horn Milkweed, seem to be increasing on the rangeland that we have a more intensive graze-rest program. (I do not understand the relationship as to why this is happening. Anybody have a theory?) I do not expect any toxicity problems with livestock as adequate forage is present for grazing. In fact, we have not noted any toxic plant issues with the use of a properly applied graze-rest program. (Bitterweed and Perennial Broomweed are decreasing at a rapid rate while Twinleaf Senna seems to be stable to increasing on the shallow rocky hillside areas. No chemicals applied only an effective graze-rest program.) Many good things happen when our rangeland is provided the ‘tinder loving care’ it deserves.
Brush management can be an effective tool when working to restore rangeland health, but always remember that it is only a ‘tool’ used by the rangeland mangers effort of improving soil health, becoming more drought tolerant and making the ranching operation more profitable. Of the numerous tools in the toolbox always remember the one tool that is the most important of all is proper grazing management, as the lack of it will result in all the other available tools being largely ineffective. Yes, the use of brush management will appear to be beneficial but over time it normally fails and must be reapplied. When proper grazing management is also applied the CAUSE of the problem has been addressed, resulting in a sustainable solution of past mistakes.
Brush encroachment on our rangelands and the resulting detrimental effects that brush has on the overall health of the rangeland is a result of poor grazing practices of past and present land managers. Simple control or management of the brush is not the answer to establishing healthy conditions, application of sound grazing management is essential to the long-term recovery of the land and for that matter profitability of the operation.
It is a dry June in the area we operate. This 1st picture of a grazed area that has reached the end of the current graze cycle, as cattle were removed just before the picture was made. It tells several interesting stories:
The picture is adjacent to a watering site, thus resulting in being grazed very short.
The dark grey area is of a large prickly pear plant that has died. No chemical used, some sort of natural process is killing the pear, but am unsure of the process that is taking place. (Nature has some amazing tools if given the opportunity to utilize them.)
Ground litter is excellent despite the close grazing. (Indicating that, yes it was time to move, but with timely rainfall and adequate length of rest good recovery can be expected.)
Cow patties in center and to the right indicate cattle doing well. (Poop-ology)
Dung to the left indicate that some of the cattle are perhaps not performing as well. (Perhaps the beginning of drought stress.) Should have moved sooner?
As you look further from the watering area grazing has been heavy, but ground litter and standing grass indicate potential valuable recovery after timely rain and a long rest period.
The light tinge of green, some being weeds and some being grass, shows there is some moisture still available and a few days after the cattle have been removed a slight green-up of the better grasses can be expected. Though it will provide little new growth for grazing purposes.
The 2nd picture is of the same pasture-same day, however some distance from watering area. (Cattle just removed.)
Indian grass is grazed probably to 30-40% of original height, however, is still showing green and will achieve some growth despite lack of rainfall.
Note the Indian grass growing within the downed cedar remnants. Not grazed and protected by the dead limbs. This is one of the ways our best most palatable grasses have survived continuous grazing over the long term. REST IS ESENTIAL.
Some Little blue is visible and has been grazed around the edges. (Once Little blue has matured cattle prefer to not graze the old parts of the plant.)
Ground litter is good, making the rainfall that is to come much more apt to slow and be absorbed into the ground. This litter provides those little microbiomes the nutrition to build soil health. (Hope that rainfall comes soon)
Take note of the prickly pear. While it is not dead, it is in poor health and the bites of the prickly pear beetle are obvious.
The point of observing these photos is to emphasize that close observation of rangeland conditions in relation to livestock grazing programs is an essential part of determining rangeland health.
Why are healthy rangelands more drought resistant?
As the density of cover increases, the soil is shaded causing limited rainfall to be conserved within the soil, evaporation due to wind and direct sunlight is reduced to a minimum.
The leaf surface of the established plants breaks the intensity of heavy rainfall into more manageable-small droplets of water, reducing compaction and creating an adaptive environment for water absorption into the soil.
The litter on the ground holds the rainfall in place so that it has more time to be absorbed. The root systems create avenues for the water to be absorbed.
The deeper the roots the deeper water can rapidly be absorbed. These positive results of saving-storing water create this dense grass cover of grasses.
As the root systems become denser, some roots are actively growing, and some are in the dying process – starting the recycling of the decaying roots and ground litter. This process gives soil microbes, bacteria, earth worms etc. the chance to thrive, further creating even healthier soils.
Those healthy soils with increased humus levels, can retain much more water than degraded soils that have lost their high levels of humus that have washed or blown away due to little cover.
Each step in the process of retaining water in the soil moves the rangeland to a higher plain of succession. When a good grazing management plan is implemented the draws and creek areas are the first to respond, as that is the place that gets the most water from runoff of poorer rangeland. As the density of perennial grasses increase the faster the rangeland resource improves. Even in short grass country dramatic things happen very quickly in those low-lying areas, even the ridges and shallow sites respond quickly. The deep soiled ‘flats’ are much slower to show improvement, a process that is the opposite of what many believe should happen. Lack of consistent rainfall in a dry -brittle- environment is a contributor to this phenomenon. Beginning this process of renewable rangeland takes effort from the rangeland manager, his utilization of a properly implemented sound grazing management plan -while not a simple-easy process- can bear much fruit, renewing the rangeland resource and improving the financial assets of the producer.
The Better it Gets, The Faster it Gets Better
The photo below is of a healthy stand of Texas Bluegrass, the result of a balanced warm-cool season graze-rest program.
This is the third time this spring I have written about Canada Wildrye. Bear with me, as this cool season perennial grass is deserving of additional study.
April rainfall was not as abundant as the three previous months were, thus limiting the available moisture for warm season plants to provide needed grazing as the cool season plants faded into but a memory of the wonderful spring season we just witnessed. The annual Rescue grass, Little Barley and Texas Filaree have matured and while still providing valuable grazing for livestock, are brown and done for the year. Even the Texas Wintergrass is maturing putting on its sharp spears, transitioning to ‘That darned old spear grass’.
Yet as the picture shows the Canada Wildrye is showing excellent growth, providing needed grazing forage for the ‘critters’ to thrive upon. As noted in earlier writings– While always observable in limited amounts on the rangeland with continuous grazing, the lush growth during dryer times was not seen. The establishment of an effective graze-rest program is allowing this excellent grazing grass to proliferate and make a positive improvement to the rangeland. (If you zoom in on the picture, take note of the yellow flowered Engelmann Daisy. It too will prosper with a properly applied grazing system.)
Cool season perennial plants are every bit as important as warm season perennials. A good grazing program is essential to having these plants available for use. That is unless the ranchman prefers to provide for the livestock with an expensive winter-feeding program. Do not trap yourself into the thought process that rest from grazing is for warm season only, cool season rest is just as important. (At least in the ecosystem that our ranching operations are located.)
It is not hard to understand why KR Bluestem is so prolific. The picture below shows early spring growth of it and the making of seed heads in mid-April. Most other warm season perennials are only getting started at this time and certainly not making seed heads. (Three-awns, better known as Needle Grass, being the exception.) The observed vertical growth of the KR is significant for grazing by cattle, as previously stated this vertical growth is only observed when a program of GRAZE-REST is consistently applied. KR is certainly not a favorite grass but is proving to be a usable resource that under continuous grazing is of little value.
Audio podcast of presentation made at the National Society of Range Management meeting in Denver, topic of discussion was about practical rangeland management Art or Science and the ability to merge the two. A lengthy discussion but some of you might enjoy what we had to offer.