Spring green up is struggling to proceed as the Texas Winter Grass, Canada Wildrye, Western Wheat, Engleman Daisy and the annual Rescue Grass is beginning to lose some of its green luster. Without a rain shower soon, the potential ‘good’ spring will be lost over this area. Where good ground cover including grass, forb and litter are present along with healthy root systems the potential is still possible. Without that cover the spring is all but lost for those that have not utilized a sound grazing management program.
The below photo shows Engleman Daisy, Texas Filary, Rescue grass, Globe Mallow and several other forbs and annuals moving into the survival mode that nature has designed into its program. This survival mode is to produce seed at all costs, as the very low growth of leaf surface is obvious. (The pocketknife is of the 3 ¾” variety for visual comparison) This survival mode is also heavy on the mind of livestock producers in the area, as all ranchmen are faced with critical and possibly very expensive resolutions to the continued drought conditions.
“We caught many catfish, sun perch and trout. At the time the North Concho was very large and deep. Many live mussel shells crawled around on the flat surface bank, dropping off into the river when anyone approached the bank.” Edna Allison ‘Milling Around Sterling County’ 1911 era. This memory of the North Concho River just south of Sterling City is a sad statement as to the current condition of the river. The river was named Concho by Spanish explorers, because of the numerous mussel shells found. The Spanish word concho is interpreted to be shell in English. As a young boy in the late 1950’s and early 60’s I found numerous mussel shells along the river, but never any live mussels. Today one must search to find a single remaining shell and the river is only a remnant of what it once was. Dry in many areas with a few clear pools of water, running a small stream during wet spells-mainly in the winter. Still a beautiful river when looking at the areas of clear live water, though wide and muddy when big rains come.
‘Milling Around Sterling County’ a history of the settlement of Sterling County was published in 1976 and is currently being updated after close to fifty years of new history taking place. Wouldn’t it be wonderful after the next fifty years if a third book were to be published telling of the North Concho once again being ‘large and deep’. The knowledge as to what caused the river to ‘dry up’ is now understood, as the loss of the dense cover of vibrant grasses and forbs has been lost and the water cycle no longer works as it once did. Yes, the increase in brush has added to the loss of the water cycle effectiveness, but it is only an ’effect’ of the loss of cover and healthy soils that is the ‘cause’. It is also understood by some that proper grazing management can overcome this lack of cover and healthy plants allowing that water cycle to become an effective provider of water to the aquifer once again. Yes, many other factors, including the many water wells that draw on the aquifer that once provided the beautiful fish and mussel filled river with water, are a contributing factor and always will be.
It is but a dream, but dreams can come true with sharing of knowledge, diligence of labor and love of the land. Fifty years from now Sterling County could be looking at struggling to have any water and the wells that now provide that high quality water could produce little to none. An unlikely thought? While fishing on the North Concho watching the mussels get away from her, Miss Allison probably didn’t dream, at some time in the future, the ‘conchos’ on the river could not be found.
THE BETTER IT GETS, THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER
Engleman Daisy, having been grazed short during the last grazing cycle in the fall. Is beginning to show recovery from the current rest period.
The following three pictures (All of the same location) have an interesting story to tell of the ability of our rangelands to adapt to ever changing climatic conditions. Both short term and long term. Proper grazing management is critical to assisting natures long range plan.
Historical data and ecological studies of droughts of the past (Paleoclimatology) shows a long history of drought. It is nothing new and as the climate has changed over the millennia (Always has and always will) the plant community adapted to those changing environmental conditions. Climate change is currently and going back to the beginning has always been a determining factor in the development of the plant and animal community. Man is at fault primarily because of his influence or contribution to the poor health of the rangeland.
Yes, drought is much more severe now than in the past, not because the amount of rainfall is less than in the past. It is more severe because our rangelands are in much poorer condition (bare ground-unthrifty plants with weak root systems, loss of the drought tolerant plants, brush encroachment– the list goes on and on.)
When drought occurred prior to mans influence, the wildlife either moved to other areas or died of starvation or lack of water. This resulted in ‘destocking ‘of the land and possibly disruption of the normal migration patterns of the migratory animals. (Moved to other less drought-stricken areas.) This destocking and the length of the ‘rest period’ was greatly influenced by the length of the dry spell. Recovery of those drought-stricken lands of the past was probably very quick thanks to natures quick response to controlling numbers of animals and rapid response to drought management protocol. (Move or die) The length of the drought was a determining factor as to how many numbers were ‘cut from the herd’ and the length of rest until restocked. Take note that this description of natures ‘drought management’ procedure is the basis of many currently productive grazing management programs. (Over simplified statement for certain)
Man, being more concerned with his survival than the land or the animals and originally his lack of understanding of the design of natures ‘drought protocol’ has resulted in the current severity of ongoing droughts. The understanding and knowledge of these drought protocols is now clearly understood by many producers and the lack of that understanding should no longer be a part of any rangeland management process.
Photo is of a transplanted Eastern Gama Grass. Long lost and to a great extent ‘extinct’ from the rangeland in my area. The result of grazing management practices that resulted in loss of the deep-rooted tall grasses that were much more drought tolerant than today’s plant community of the rangeland and the loss of a continuous cover of grasses and forbs over the soil. (Note the density of cover in the photo. Yes, this spot has had some help in the form of irrigation to aid in establishing the Eastern Gama, not a true rangeland condition) With tender loving care (Proper grazing management) and time, this plant could be a part of the basis of recovering the rangeland to its former drought resistant dominance.
Still setting at 4.47 inches for the past 10 months on the home place. The photo below depicts the current conditions very vividly. Well-planned grazing operations are suffering along with all others, and it is difficult to look forward to the future in this dismal state. When hoping for a good rain to brighten the rancher’s perspective, looking at this same photo reveals two different scenarios.
First zoom in, look closely at the right-hand side, and think what will happen when that long hoped for rain does come. Very little grass or forage of any kind is to be found, no litter of old decaying grasses are available to slow water flow and shade the soil. The slick-compacted soil surface will absorb little of the rainfall unless it is a very slow rainfall event. While the rain will be a welcome benefit to this rangeland most of that precious water will run off taking valuable soil with it and what little does not will be quickly lost to evaporation.
Now look at the lift-hand side. While not what one would hope for, there are standing grass plants that show to have some vigor despite the drought, ground litter is present, and if one zooms in even further, he can see that the soil surface is chipped and broken. (Animal impact) allowing for quicker soil absorption of the rainfall. Even some Texas Croton is present although very small, certainly it is a positive that it is present and sadly is not on the other side of the fence. When the rain does come the left side is much better prepared to capitalize on the wetting event.
Grazing management utilizing a well-planned graze-rest program on a continuing basis is by far the best approach to minimizing the devastating effects of drought. Yes, the height left of the grasses after grazing is critical, but under these conditions many times that is foreshadowed by the devastating drought conditions.
Many within the ‘Save the Earth from Climate Change’ group are promoting doubling the land mass that is ‘Protected’. Protected areas are areas like national parks, Yellowstone National Park being one of them. Sadly, studies of the Yellowstone show land degradation continuing even though considerable study and resources have been used to reverse this trend. The Jornada Experiment station in New Mexico is another glaring example of what happens to land within a ‘brittle’ environment that are ‘protected’. (Protected area from grazing livestock was created some 90 years ago, to preserve an area of grassland. It is now a barren desert.)
Sound rangeland-grazing management is perhaps the most valuable environmental solution or tool to a continually changing climate and the resources available to PROTECT the environment. While the ranching-rangeland management industry has made many mistakes in the past, todays knowledge of rangeland recovery techniques has much to offer those concerned with declining environmental conditions. Everyone must learn from past mistakes-inequities; that involves study of the past and asking the simple question of ‘What is the Cause?’ (This not only applies to the environment but most everything that the past has to offer. In short, the study of history and understanding of the issues that caused the extenuating circumstances to exist.)
The climate has never been or ever will be a stable process.
Storing vast amounts of carbon, stabilizing those carbon rich soils, utilizing/storing virtually every drop of rain-snow, maximizing the mineral cycle that strong root systems and the micro biomes can provide a healthy rangeland. Utilizing sunlight energy to the maximum is what sound grassland management is all about, providing society with ever improving environmental conditions regardless of what climate The Lord/Nature provides.
The pictures below depict rangeland ‘protected’ from environmental destruction utilizing a controlled graze-rest program. Utilization of this process can be extremely valuable in preserving The Lords creation and the resulting environmental sound processes.
Burned this pasture this past week with a relatively cool burn. (Wind 5 to 6 mph, Temperature 62 degrees, Humidity 30%) These were not the conditions desired, but when practicing the use of prescribed burns, capturing the perfect conditions is a difficult task. The heavy cover of prickly pear is evident and as the picture shows, the fire effect on the pear is significant and acceptable. The considerable density of grass cover has resulted in uniform fire effect over most of the pasture. That dense grass cover and the resulting dense root systems of the grass will be direct competition to the injured pear and with the continued use of a short graze-long rest grazing program should result in considerable mortality of the pear.
The Red Berry Cedar had little flaring of the leaves but will most likely have significant defoliation over time. This defoliation will result in many of the Red Berry’s being top killed but will all resprout from base in short order. (Not a total loss of fire effect as these resprouting Cedars will be suppressed for a few years.) Conversely if the cedar had been Blue Berry much of it would have been killed.
Fire is a good tool to be used for rangeland reclamation, but care must be taken to always keep in mind that it is only one of the tools in the toolbox and is not a cure within itself. Grazing management should always be the first tool used when looking to manage the rangeland and the environment that is so important to us all.
In January 2018, after the burn pictured below, Sims and I were making one last circle of a 1,300 acre burn about 20 minutes before sundown. (With the help of NRCS’s EQIP program, a 500-foot strip cleared of volatile fuels on the downwind side of the burn had been put in a few years prior to the burn. 8 people were able to complete the entire burn, black line included, in one day. First torch was lit at 10:00 AM, final head fire was set at 3:00 PM. Note we were not in a hurry and used proper protocol of burn initiation, but the cleared area makes burns much safer and allows for fewer personnel to move quickly and efficiently.)
OK, back to the story. Sims and I were on the north side of the burn entering a wide draw area. To our surprise both Blue and Bobwhite quail were entering the burned area by the hundreds. (Perhaps thousands, but I’ll stay with the hundreds) Covey after covey were flying in front of and over us, landing in the burned area-indiscriminate of species- scurrying about on the burned ground. In wonderment we stopped momentarily and observed what was taking place. Sims noted that he had seen small beetles moving about on the burned ground earlier in the day, possibly disrupted from their winter homes in the ground. Perhaps the birds were in a feeding frenzy? (Sorry, we took no pictures of the event and moved on quickly to finish our task of being sure the burn was safe prior to dark.) Looking back on what we saw and after talking with others more familiar with quail, we-perhaps, witnessed an event that few have the opportunity to see. The question I have is how did the quail-both Bobs and Blues- know to return to the burned area so soon after the fire? Did a few venture into the burned area and find the food source to be exceptionally good, then return to the displaced coveys and say “Hey guys you will never believe what I have found, let’s go get ‘em”? Some might say it was “instinct”, a trait bred into the birds after centuries of living in a fire culture. I don’t know, but it was a sight to behold and I wish a trained quail man had been there to talk us through the event.
After contemplating on this viewed event, I have developed a theory of my own. (Keep in mind this is just a theory from an untrained eye and I welcome thought from others.) The burn was done is several stages, even to the point of having 6 head fire ignitions. (As a general rule we prefer to ignite a single head fire to achieve the intensity of fire that is most beneficial to suppressing both cedar and prickly pear, however this burn had several well-traveled roads running through it and we were dealing with less that preferred quantities of fine fuel. -Grass- Overall, we were satisfied with this tactic. One must keep in mind that no two prescribed burns are alike, the fire boss must always be considering the conditions of each burn on an individual basis.)
Back to my theory, with each head fire initiation the fire moved the quail away from that fire, putting them into the area not burned. Each time we burned a new area the quail were concentrated that much more. Finally, when we burned the last head fire area the quail were moved into the draw on the north side of the burn. In effect we unwittingly ‘gathered’ the quail, somewhat like one would gather a pasture of livestock. Sims and I happened to pass by that area at the precise time the quail began to move back to their home territory. (I am told quail spend their lives within a very few acres and I don’t doubt their homing instinct is every bit as strong as most other ‘critters’ in natures domain.) On their way home, they discovered the ‘windfall’ of insects that had been displaced due to the burn. Of course, the reader of this must accept that my imagination can ‘get away with itself’ at times.
The pear shown here is ‘wounded’ at best, but it is a start and with grass density increasing after the burn, good grazing management following in subsequent years, perhaps it is on the way out. In particular with a ‘follow-up’ burn in a few years. (True a treatment with chemicals would do away with the pear issue quickly, but that is not an option as the owner of the property is unwilling to make that kind of investment. Natural control is the current policy.) We had some excellent cedar flaring in other areas of the burn, of course it was Red Berry, so it is suppressed not killed.
The next post will illude to conditions four years later.
An exceptional specimen of winter dormant Southwestern Bristle Grass. (Several other SW Bristle grasses are visible within picture along with Indian Grass, perhaps long-time survivors, or seedlings from a time long ago prior to Europeans mans influence.) These have appeared along a creek that was formerly very dense cover of Blue Berry Cedar and regrowth oaks that burned some 11 years ago. Recently cleared of brush, the site has a long way to go in becoming a productive area for livestock and an environmentally significant site as to mineral, water and nutrient sequestering. There is little doubt that in short order, if the proper utilization of a well-planned graze-rest program is continued, this site will quickly become a productive part of the ecosystem. As I have previously noted the Southwestern is much more palatable, produces much more leaf, that is much wider than Plains Bristle’s leaves. As we move forward in our graze-rest-graze-rest management program the Southwestern is increasing at a considerable rate mainly within the eastern or slightly higher rainfall areas. This is a ‘up-and-comer’ in my book and is a very positive indication of better grazing conditions to come.
May not be an impressive photo to some, but those that know the area -a few years back- would have described it as nothing but a bunch of rocks and cedar trees. Blaming the poor condition of the rangeland on low average rainfall and little soil on which to produce any grass, let alone tall grasses. The only thing that has changed is the initiation of a controlled graze-rest program. Nature is very resilient and even after some 140 years of continuous grazing, recovery can be just around the corner. Patience is in order though as it has taken several years of those grazing improvements and the management that goes with the program. Drought is much less prevalent when a good grazing program is utilized, and wouldn’t it be neat to have seen that pile of rocks 150 years ago? I’m betting that the rocks were not as noticeable because of the soil covering them, of course that washed away long ago. It will take many years, but the current management programs resulting healthy root systems will rebuild that soil.