Is drought more prevalent today within the Great Plains than when European man arrived in the Americas? According to tree ring studies that is not the case. Several droughts of the pre-European’s tenure were much longer and more severe than imaginable to modern man. Yet the rangeland and its plant life adapted to those harsh conditions.
Is drought more severe now than it was early on? Yes, without a doubt, the loss of much of the healthy rangelands continuous cover of the soil by the grasses-forbs-browse and their deep-healthy root systems reduced much of our once healthy rangelands to bare soil, unhealthy plants with shallow roots. Thus, the rangeland is affected by shortage of rainfall much quicker that when nature was in total control.
Why did this happen? Disruption of nature’s well adapted solutions to the influence of continually changing climatic conditions. Loss of herding effect of the huge herds of wildlife, loss of those herds moving to fresh grazing not to return to grazed areas for considerable time, fragmentation of the rangelands and above all poor grazing practices of livestock grazers that did not understand what was happening.
Can this drought issue be changed? We cannot go back to those pristine days of the past, but we can cause our rangeland to make considerable strides to recovering from the effects of drought. The answer is relatively simple with the initiation of sound grazing policies that emphasize the use of animal impact and rest-recovery from that animal impact.
Following Natures Time Tested Example-Process is the Key Ingredient.
After the extended dry of no rainfall from May thru September of this past year deep roots and dense grass cover provide (Although somewhat wilted) green grazing forage. Photo taken mid-September
As the studies of rangeland degradation and improvement move forward (Or backward according to some). We all need to seek out the cause of our loss of pristine rangeland conditions found when ranchmen first began to graze livestock on those lands. I recently came across a USDA publication published in 1899, it focuses on rangelands in the exact area that I have the privilege in ranching. The publication is a short read of 48 pages and gives a very good rendition of past events and what might be done to improve or at least return to the excellent grazing capabilities of our rangelands.
Below I have provided the web address of the publication. It is free and an easy read, while you are reading it remind yourself that it was written by a man living within the era of the beginning of the large-scale grazing of the rangeland. I found myself having to ‘pinch’ myself on a regular basis to remind me that it was written in 1899.
While I do not agree with everything Smith has to say, his facts and theories are compelling and anyone dealing with the rangelands of our great nation should study his thoughts carefully.
Grazing Problems in the Southwest and How to Meet Them
By Jared G. Smith
Mid-January photo: Grazed in October; Cool season grasses are responding well to rest period.
Ground cover, both litter and dense perennial grasses, is invaluable during the frequent dry periods of West Central Texas. (Or any other area for that matter.)
The small showers of the past few weeks have resulted in excellent growth of cool season grasses within these areas, while just a few feet from this promising forage growth the bare ground is showing no green except for a few small ground hugging weeds. These areas don’t just happen, it takes good grazing management to produce this scenario on a scale large enough to provide needed forage for the livestock enterprise.
The perennial Canada Wildrye and annual Rescue Grass are found within the pictures. Note the annual broomweed in the pictures. It does not appear to have been detrimental to the health of the grassland ecosystem, even provided some cover and seeds for the quail. (If there are any to be found.)
Second picture shows a transition from bare ground to healthier range site.
Resistance to Change (RC) is a Limiting Factor Preventing Some Ranchmen Moving Forward with a Controlled Grazing Program.
As the understanding of how our rangelands were created and what has been the determining factor in rangeland degradation. (Poor grazing management practices.) Some question why everyone isn’t rapidly moving forward with grazing techniques that move our rangelands toward the ecologically pristine conditions early European man found when first seeing the amazing grasslands of the Great Plains. (Some ranchmen do not want to change their grazing techniques under any circumstance and that is fine, as our great Nation affords that decision to the individual operator to ‘voluntarily’ make that decision.) Change from the traditional way our forefathers grazed the land is perhaps the most difficult process for many to initiate, thus preventing consistent rangeland improvement and consistently profitable ranching operations. There is nothing wrong with honoring and continuing traditions that are time honored by the ranchman. However, when that tradition is found to be in error and might be the cause of the sustainable ranching operation fading into the ‘dust’, then change becomes a positive factor. The positive change resulting in the ranching operation being consistently profitable, along with creating truly sustainable rangelands will result in being able to continue with those acceptable time-honored traditions.
With the recent January rain, we hopefully are looking forward to a spring as the picture from the past shows.
14.23” for the year 2019 has made for a challenge this winter. Thankfully our grazing program has proven the worth of building drought resistance.
It has been said that when the rangeland manager improves grasslands it is good for the environment but is not a profitable proposition and can only be accomplished by those that have considerable finances to fund the task. When the tools available are properly utilized this statement is nothing further from the truth.
Implementation of good grazing techniques, which is the first step in truly improving the health of our rangeland resource, will result in consistent and even lucrative profitability of a ranching operation. While many variables may or may not be addressed by the individual rangeland managers, here are several profit producing changes that should take place.
- When a single herd program is established, labor needed is greatly reduced per animal unit. As much as 50%
- When close attention is payed to rest-grazing periods influencing both warm and cool season grasses, supplemental feeding is reduced and sometimes results in no feeding over the course of the year.
- Internal and external parasites become less of an issue due to the long rest periods interrupting the life cycle of the parasites. As the health of the rangeland improves, this also seems to be a factor resulting in fewer parasite problems. (Positive competition from the massive amounts of micro-biomes living within the healthy soils is yet to be understood by the scientific community.)
- A properly designed grazing program involves much more than the graze-rest portion of the operation. Within a cow-calf operation, timing of calving-weaning and the proper handling of livestock reducing stress are important aspects of the operation.
- The breed, breed mix and cattle adapted to the rangeland operation can have a dramatic effect on a cow-calf operation.
- Consistent breed ups, percentage of calves per cow bred and weaning weight is not reduced with a properly applied program.
Think of the reduced labor, fuel, equipment and feed when the above process’ are used. Then factor in the ability to -over time- increase the grazing capacity of the rangeland and the opportunity for increased-consistent profitability become major factors in having a sustainable ranching operation.
Photo depicts prickly pear succumbing to processes that I do not understand. No chemicals used, burned two years ago and a single herd-long rest grazing program utilized.
Photo shows Big Bluestem establishing itself on a rocky upland site. Diversity of plant life is essential to a healthy rangeland, as is the density of coverage. This process takes time and patience is virtuous in the grazing mangers available tools for rangeland improvement.
Why has much of our rangeland become dominated by heavy brush? Why is the grazing capacity of much of our pastureland becoming less with each passing dry spell? Why does it seem that drought occurs more often and tends to be more severe than in the past? Why are our freshwater resources drying up, becoming harder to obtain? Why do a few rangeland managers address these issues and so many others not seem to grasp what is happening? Why are so many ranches being dispersed into small units, never to have the opportunity to be sustainable rangelands again? Why is profitability of a ranching operation so hard to consistently obtain and seems to only be a ‘dream’ for many producers?
Sounds like a young child asking questions that we adults don’t have a logical answer for, so we just avoid the answer and move on to a new topic. Of course, we ‘adults’, when asking those questions among other ‘grownups’ tend place the blame on others and other events, not looking at what we as individuals might be doing wrong. Upon finding the culprit, we blame them or at least what the perceived cause is and move on to a new topic, still not looking for practicable answers that most likely involve personal decisions that can only be corrected by that individual.
It is time we recognize what has happened to our rangeland and act. Not continue to put the blame on the effects not the cause. That cause is the result of poor grazing practices over time. (Yes, lack of fire may be a contributor to that cause, however poor grazing management is one of the causes of the loss of fire as a management tool.) Open discussion and acceptance of the fact that we all, (Ranchmen and scientists alike) have been working fervently to correct the effects and not that cause. Yes, the effects must be addressed, but without addressing the cause (Grazing management or the lack there of) we will never truly move forward to the point of correcting the environmental issues that directly affect everyone.
Even during extended dry spells, Big Blue seems to turn up in surprising places when lots of TLC (Proper grazing management) is applied. Take a moment to think or at least dream of what the rangeland in your area looked like in the mid 1800’s, when tall grasses were dominant, and brush was limited to small areas that were not prone to wildfire events. From high rainfall areas to the limited rainfall of dryer brittle environments, it was bound to be a sight to behold. The tools and knowledge are available to at least begin to recreate those conditions. Planning and diligence can begin to move this ‘dream’ forward, however one thing is for certain:
If the rangeland manager is unwilling to utilize those ‘tools’ the process will never move forward.
In previous posts I have talked of the prickly pear reducing in canopy coverage over a considerable portion of the rangelands that Sims and I work. I wish a qualified scientist would come along and interpret what is happening, but while waiting for this fellow, here is my opinion.
I have observed the pear beetles that are shown in third picture for most of my life. Taking note that the damaged pear pads they create while feasting on the plant tend to die over time, the entire plant always seemed to remain growing. With little grass surrounding the plant I assumed the pear had some sort of mechanism that prevented the grass from growing next to and within the plant itself. These assumptions appear to be wrong.
As the controlled grazing program has increased the density and vigor of the grasses and their resulting strong root systems, the pear is succumbing to that competition. The pear beetles and perhaps other disease issues damage the pear plant and the grasses take over. (Poor little beetles may be eating their way out of a home.) Prescribed fire certainly can move this process forward faster but does not appear to be a critical factor. Rangelands that have not had a fire placed on them are showing the same decline in pear coverage although not as fast or perhaps complete. Even those pear pads that are broken off and fall to the ground do not take root, as they fall on a turf of grass and litter that prevents the ground- soil-moister contact that implements the new root growth.
One thing is for certain, without the implementation and continued use of a sound grazing management plan the grasses would never reach the density level that makes this process work.
The better it gets the faster it gets better.
Bare soil seldom assists nature in moving forward the many ‘gifts’ she has to offer when referring to healthy rangeland. Conversely, soil cover is what she asks for to move the rangeland forward to a healthy environmentally productive state. Cover of the soil is generally a simple process, as it may be perennial grass/forbs and the root systems associated with them, it may be litter being, old decaying plants and it might be annual plants that at least offer a start to healthy rangeland. Hopefully a combination of the above are what we as rangeland managers can offer what the Lord created in the form of nature. Without those tools erosion and drought will prevail, reducing our rangeland resource to potentially desertifying ruin. Taking the time to understand the processes and properly applying them, is certain worth the effort and the ranching operation can realize consistent profitability during the process.
A WIN-WIN DEAL.
Diversity of plants is very important within healthy rangelands. Picture shows Canada Wildrye, Side Oats, Big Blue. Indian Grass and many other plants. Albeit within what used to be nothing more than a ‘Rock Pile’.
Hooded Windmill Grass
Hooded Windmill Grass is finding a higher place in my book of preffered grasses. Livestock seem to preffer grazing it to many other dormant mid grasses and provided a good grazing program has allowed its root system to be strong & healthy – when a little rain comes along it is among the first to green up.
Zoomed in photo reveals relatively close grazing and green shoots after a recent small rain. A long rest period will provide oportunity to fully recover and become yet stronger, providing ‘insurance’ for the next dry spell.
Proper grazing managemant is the best drought management tool available.