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.


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


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.

Southwestern Bristle Grass

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.


Southwestern Bristle Grass

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.


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.


With Help from Us All the Environment Can Flourish

Well planned and implemented rangeland management programs can be one of the best options for environmental recovery of our natural resources. Water quality and quantity, air quality, recovery of natural habitat and providing for the nutritional and environmental needs of the public are all enhanced by the caring hands that utilize livestock and good judgement to repair past issues that have degraded our precious landscape. Telling the story of those success’ is essential, not only for those seeking to enhance nature’s ability to repair the land, but to those that are far removed from the land that wish to understand the process of regenerative care of our resources.

Natural stabilization of stream banks, establishment of live water, storing carbon and providing untold numbers of micro biome’s a fertile home to flourish and build soil health. All the while growing food and fiber for an environmental health-conscious public.
Yet another example of erosion recovery

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.


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