Burning Success Not Only the Result of Fire

Here are three photos of the burn in 2018, the first being a few days after the burn, take note of the large mesquite tree in upper center of photo. Of interest is Grant Teplicek on the far right. Grant is a very proficient-knowledgeable burn specialist with the NRCS, it is sad that the powers that be, have virtually stopped the use of these specialists. Not letting them participate in prescribed burns other than design of a burn. They cannot participate in the burn itself, to the point of if the fire escapes they are to do nothing to help control it.)

A very effective burn of relatively hot conditions, the second photo taken mid-February 2022, showing the same large mesquite in the first photo. (I recommend that when photo points of a burn are established not to use trees as the identification of a specific site as the tree may be top killed as a result of the burn and over time it becomes very hard to find that exact site.) Take note of the lack of visible prickly pear, yes there are several plants remaining but are covered by the vigorous grass community. The third picture is of a dead pear that has expired because of the burn and the density of the grasses and their root systems competing with the pear, no chemicals applied. Perhaps aided by insects and unknown microbial activity as a result of the more intensive graze rest management program.

It is my belief that the first prerequisite of any rangeland recovery program is establishment of an effective graze-rest management program.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER

January 2018 Burn
Recovered Site Four Years Later
Prickly Pear Mortality Four Years After Burn

Burning-Wildlife-Recovery

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.

No photo description available.

Little Bluestem and Indian Grass on a Rocky Hillside

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.

THE BETTER IT GETS THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER

Saving the Earth from Climate Change

Many within the ‘Save the Earth from Climate Change’ group are promoting doubling the land mass that is ‘Protected’. Protected areas are considered to be 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 grazing management is perhaps the most valuable environmental solution or tool to a continually changing climate and the resources available to PROTECT the environment.

As the pictures below depict rangeland ‘protected’ from environmental destruction utilizing a controlled graze-rest program can be extremely valuable in preserving The Lords creation and the resulting environmental sound processes. (Some call it Natures; I consider it one in the same)

Big Blue or Sand Blue, Indian Grass, Side Oats, Little Blue: The mineral and water cycles at their best.
A few yards away Switch Grass taking hold in overflow area.
Former erosive area recovering nicely. Note the Switch Grass in the background.

THE BETTER IT GETS, THE FASTER IT GETS BETTER

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

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.

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.

Bush Sunflower Among Top Four Forbs on Rangeland

Bush Sunflower rarely seen on rangeland in our area, with the exception of the lonely one growing within an existing ‘bush’ such as skunk brush or any other low growing bush that protected the highly palatable bush sunflower form being grazed to ‘death’. Although the leaves and stems feel very harsh being somewhat scratchy and not being a particularly showy or pretty ‘weed’, livestock and wildlife alike readily graze it. Being a perennial plant having 26% to 31% protein in the early spring, its robust root system makes it a drought tolerant plant that can be an unbelievably valuable resource for rangeland health and the ranchman’s pocketbook. (A very opportune time to have a high protein source of forage available coming out of winter months.) The assumption that the bush part of the name was derived from its tendency to be found growing within a bush, is supposedly incorrect, as given the opportunity to flourish within a good grazing program it is said to develop a bush like appearance. (Still waiting to observe this.) As time goes by, on rangeland protected by a good graze-rest program, the plant is becoming ever increasing in prevalence like the one pictured below, without the ‘bush’ being present. (Young mesquite in picture being excepted) Areas that are under a continuous grazing program seldom have bush sunflower present other than those growing in a bush as referred to above. When numerous bush sunflowers are present, it is an excellent indicator of improving rangeland health.