The many attributes of making ranching one’s life profession are numerous -quality of life-pride in accomplishment-honoring and participating in long honored traditions- the list can go on for pages, but the opportunity to raise the kids and grandkids in an atmosphere that will develop life skills that can carry on for generations is the most valuable of all. My ranching career has produced many eventful-successful accolades, the success, and ethics of my children and now grandchildren is the grandest, most humbling success of Ginger and I’s life.
Fewer and fewer true ranching operations are still active in the Central and West Texas area and the time-honored traditions and quality ranch kids are dwindling quickly. One must ask; What has happened in the fast-paced modern world resulting in this loss? Consistent profitability of the ranching operation is possibly the largest factor in this loss. (Why would the next generation wish to remain on the ranch when he cannot make a living doing so?) Those ranchers that have recognized the potential in repairing the rangeland resource, moving toward what nature provided prior to mans abuse and mining of our grasslands resource. This resource provides the nutrition to grow those grazing plants and provide livestock and wildlife the nutrition to flourish, makes the water cycle sustainable and retains carbon in the soil where it belongs. The key to that repair is a grazing management program so often referred to by me, without that tool all other ‘repair’ methods will ultimately fail. Perhaps not for those that do not make profitability to be their primary goal, but then again that lack of consistent profitability is a large contributor to the ‘ranch kids’ decline.
There is much more to a profitable ranching operation than simply good range management application. The operation must be treated with a business approach including all aspects of the operation including quality of life-sustainability-social interaction within the community.
Production Agriculture can be the Leader in Environmental Solutions of the Future. Tell the story, offer the evidence, and see to it that the politicians understand the value production agriculture can offer!
Those involved in agriculture have the tools and knowledge to correct many of the environmental problems that face our finite natural resources. Whether it be, according to Aldo Leopold, “The axe, plow, cow, fire and gun” or the many combinations of modern tools available. (Which are extensions of the tools Leopold advocated.) The leadership and learning institutions of our nation must do all they can to assist the knowledgeable artists of agriculture production in seeing to it that the environment is improving and stable for generations to come.
There is little doubt that man has always had an influence over the environment, or at least since man first appeared on the scene. In many cases his influence has been negative, utilizing natures (The Lords) creations to his benefit, mining the resources available and paying little attention to the long-term effects of his use of those resources. Those in agriculture production have long recognized their influence over natures resources that they utilize, and many have become true artists in the renewal of those God given assets.
In the beginning man was only concerned with survival and justifiably so, all he had to do was figure out how to utilize the many things available to him. Over time as he developed those mental skills necessary to become proficient at survival, he began advancing a culture and sought to build a quality life for he, his family and the community surrounding him. All the while ‘mining’ the resources available to him as they seemed to be endless in availability. History is littered with failed nations and cultures that used or mined the land resource to the point that the soils he was using deteriorated from loss of fertility and erosion– to the point that the culture failed from starvation or political dissatisfaction that ultimately destroyed the cultural infrastructure that had been sought by its people.
As the world has arguably been populated in all sectors, there are no longer new lands to move to and develop so that man can exploit and mine the soil to the point of destruction. For man to survive, it must be recognized that soil is a renewable resource -that when nurtured by man- can produce ever more productive crops, livestock, and environmentally sustaining benefits to the world we reside in. It is not necessary for man to till or graze the land to the point of severe erosion and near total loss of fertility of those soils. It is not necessary for man to accept the argued premise that CO2 will become an environmentally unacceptable detriment to the world we depend on for survival. Man must recognize that he has caused the severe depletion of the soil resource and that he can begin to make a difference in recovering what has been lost.
Fall rangeland depicting both warm season and cool season grasses expressing excellent health. A look at the soil structure beneath these healthy plants is the exciting part.
For the last 150 years or so, much of our rangeland has been continuously grazed, at first by exceedingly high numbers of livestock then ever lessoning numbers as the rangeland could not support those previously high numbers. Never receiving the rest that is essential for recovery from that grazing. The range moved from the high quality-predominantly red range to white range, then moved progressively toward gray range. Bare soil has been increasing at various amounts all through this rangeland paradox. It is sad as one travels across vast areas of the western US to observe this phenomenon on an ever-increasing scale. In my lifetime it is quite noticeable what is happening. A drive down the highway going west of my headquarters is a sad experience, with reference to rangeland health. Yes, desert conditions have long been known in this area, but as time moves along it is becoming ever more noticeable that it is truly becoming a desert that is very hard to recover from.
As old-moribund grasses die and they are not replaced by new seedlings because of soil capping and loss of fertility, the soil is exposed to the elements and much of the humus and soil microbes are lost mainly to wind, water erosion and lack of cover for protection. This is a slow process that most ranchmen never notice until the ranchland is baren with little hope for recovery. A wet spell or extended rainy season can produce numerous annuals as nature abhors a barren landscape and does everything possible to cover the soil. Be it brush or annuals it will try to repair the damage done. Many times, the resource manager perceives the problem to be the encroachment of the brush, extended dry spells and even the nuisance of the annuals as being the cause of the slow desertification of the landscape. (I am told California is in the annual plants predicament as few perennials are currently present in many areas.) These are only symptoms of the overall problem and trying to correct the issues will most likely be futile without correcting the cause, which is generally one of two issues. Lack of animal impact and-or little time for recovery from grazing animals albeit wildlife or domestic livestock.
The Ace Reid comic strip below has more truth than many realize. Extended rest for long periods (12 years) will only lead to further desertification.
Gray rangeland is the sign of old moribund plants that are dying of old age and neglect. Grass plants need to have their old growth removed so that growth nodes can be stimulated to promote new growth. In dryer climates those old nongrowing leaves must oxidate over long periods of time to reach the point that they fall away from the grass structure so that new growth can occur. Thus, without some sort of disturbance -in a low humidity environment- the plant slowly dies, producing little new growth even during wet rainfall periods. Yes, some green up with limited growth will occur during those periods, but over time it begins to die from the center of the plant that slowly spreads to the outside of the plant. Thus, producing the gray color of the grass, many times having an open center with no life at all. Producing an excellent place for woody plants like mesquite to germinate and flourish. Some grasses develop this gray look faster than others and it seems that the white grasses are more prone to it than the reds, possibly because the reds are more likely to be grazed before becoming moribund.
These grasses need some ‘event’ to breakoff or remove this old dead structure. It can come in the form of fire, hailstorm, high wind event (tornado), human intervention -mechanical (dozer-tractor-chain-rake-grubber, vehicle tires-etc.), or the impact of a grazing animal stepping on-laying on-trampling-pooping on-peeing on etc. The grazing animal, most likely, will not graze the gray plant as there is very little-if any- nutritive value of that gray grass and if it were to be grazed from lack of anything else to eat animal performance would be sadly reduced.
The large gray areas that seem to dominate many rangeland areas is the result of over rest of the range. Managers that remove all livestock from the rangeland see dramatic increase in grass growth for a few years then those happy grasses that have no impact start get old and die, turning the range to that regrettable gray color. Even rangeland with light continuous grazing can do the same thing. As the old grasses die, few new plants or seedlings are established -a process that is the result of lack of that same necessary disturbance to the unhealthy rangeland- the range becomes bare soil resulting in erosion issues from water and wind and-or covered in brush that establishes itself within those old dying plants. Either way the ecosystem suffers, and much rangeland diversity is lost because of the influence of the land manager that does not understand these processes. (We will discuss bare soil and rocks next time.)
First photo is of an old moribund plant circled in blue. Note the ‘very’ few young seedlings that are of the ‘white’ variety and are most likely annuals. These young plants will probably not survive on this poor ecological site. With proper grazing management and patience this site can be changed to a productive one.
The second photo shows the same plant circled in red that has been raked by fingers. (No pulling just raked with open fingers.) The blue circle is dead plant material piled next to the ‘now much happier’ formerly dying plant. If one were to return to this spot this spring -with adequate rainfall- this plant would show active new growth, which would still be limited at best as it is a three-awn. (Could be wrong with ID.)
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.