My name is David Kitner, and I am the manager of Killam Ranch Properties, Ltd. I manage several ranches from South Texas to the Flint Hills of SE Kansas. My presentation will mainly focus on the transformation of the Duval County Ranch in Deep South Texas, and how I utilize rotational grazing to benefit the land and the cattle.
Duval County Ranch is located 2 hours south of San Antonio, and covers 125,000 plus contiguous acres. It is located in an arid, mesquite covered region. Along with the mesquite, there are numerous species of brush that cover the landscape. Forage production is limited by the amount of brush cover. The ranch is split by 3 major highways which present another challenge to its management. The ranch is a multi-use operation consisting of grazing mainly stocker cattle, a hunting/wildlife operation, and also oil and mineral production. I would like to stress that the Duval County Ranch is a working ranch, and none of the oil and gas revenue goes into the ranch budget. My management entails the planning and supervision of all surface operations on the property.
I came to the DCR in 2001, and prior management used what could be considered a “scorched earth” policy. The ranch was severely overgrazed with cattle in every pasture on the ranch with no rotation in effect. Forage was non-existent and bare ground was extensive across the ranch. My first objective was to de-stock the ranch to begin the healing process, and with the owner’s blessing this is what I did. The ranch had over 2000 head of stocker cattle and around 750 cows at this time. The stocker cattle were easy to remove by shipping them to a feedlot. The cows took more time to remove. Having stockers as opposed to cows is an important step in planning for drought, as stockers are much easier to disperse should the need arise.
Making the Change and Implementing a New Strategy
My main objective was to heal the land so that we could improve the water cycle by increasing the ground cover/forage on the range. This would help with not only cattle production, but all wildlife as well. In this area, the annual rainfall is 21 inches, though that is not always the case. Moderate or severe drought can be expected 2 or 3 years out of 5. A major step towards improving carrying capacity is better water distribution, which I improved by dramatically increasing the water system. Over 100 miles of water line was installed, with numerous 8 foot concrete troughs. This has been a huge, on-going project, utilizing just ranch help and equipment. I used a computer mapping program to plan the placement of the lines and troughs for utmost efficiency. The water on the ranch is supplied by four large wells, and the water is stored in five 20,000 gallon tanks on a hilltop, providing a gravity flow delivery. The water flows through large mainlines, with numerous smaller lines spreading off feeding the 200+ troughs.
In addition to de-stocking and water improvements, brush control was an integral part of increasing forage. To this end, we instituted a burning and brush spraying program in cooperation with NRCS and most especially Jason Hohlt, the GLCI coordinator in our area at the time. Our brush spraying has mainly targeted Mesquite and prickly pear. Our mixed brush species are valuable forage for our wildlife. The response of our native grasses has been unbelievable. When you remove the canopy and the competition for rain water, the forage species explode. One problem to be aware of with spraying mesquite is that you have a short time window in which the chemicals are effective, and if the plants aren’t in the right condition to spray, then you lose a year, as we did this year. Our kill rates on our target species has ranged from 75% to 90+%.
Prescribed burns have also been incorporated in our brush management plans. Burning has been very effective in suppressing prickly pear after running a Lawson Aerator over a pasture. We have almost eliminated pear in our receiving traps using fire as the suppressor.
Re-Stocking and Herd Management
With the improvements begun and the land healing, stockers were re-introduced, with a main goal of low- stress cattle handling and pasture rotation helping to further improve range conditions. Our stockers are bought through order buyers and trucked to the ranch. Our first step is to turn them out into an arena (which has been converted into a processing facility) with plenty of hay and water available, to acclimate and recover from the trip. We then process them, and move them into a series of small traps before turning them out into larger pastures. I have set up fenced lanes from the arena to these traps to assist in gentling the cattle, so there is nowhere for them to panic and run. A man on horseback ahead, and a dog and man behind aids in training them to follow the horses down the lane to the traps. The cattle will spend around three weeks in these small traps, and all during this time they are being monitored for health issues, and being trained to come to the cake truck. The cattle in the traps are gathered horseback every morning into water lots where they are fed by the same truck that will feed them when they get to the larger pastures. They are checked for health issues and any pulls are driven down a lane to a small corral to be temped and treated. Any sick cattle are placed in separate traps away from the herd to avoid spreading illnesses. I’ve put a siren on the cake truck (this is extremely helpful) that we sound so that when they get to larger pastures, they can hear us and come running even if they can’t see us. We feed them daily with range cubes, so they learn to associate the truck with receiving the cube. We also move them from small trap to small trap with the cake truck, so they are learning to move easily, associating moving with new grass and more cake. Low stress is key!
I’ve incorporated original fencing with new fencing to create a system conducive to both the training of the cattle and the forage production. Our smaller traps are only 15-30 acres in size, enabling me to see all the cattle on a regular basis, gauging their health and condition. From there, they are moved into larger pastures, around 1200 acres. By this time they are pretty well used to doing things my way, and they are eventually released into pastures of 5000 acres plus. They are still visited by a cowboy and the cake truck blowing the siren 2-3 times a week so they don’t forget their lessons. They know if they show up, they will get a treat. To move them between the larger pastures, the cake truck leads the way with just one or two cowboys behind to move along strays. It is a simple, effective method. Patience is the most important element in every operation we do with our cattle. My favorite saying to my men is “the slower you move, the quicker we get done!” This style of large scale rotational grazing is uncommon in the region, and many consider it to be impossible to implement. It just takes some thought and planning. Allowing our pastures periodic rest has been a huge part of reducing our labor costs and efficiently managing forage.
Grazing Periods and Pasture Rotation
How I decide when to rotate the cattle in the pastures relies on no set formula. Range conditions dictate when the cattle are moved, and those conditions are dependent on rainfall and weather. I rely on eyeballing and experience based on 40+ years of observation. You can’t just put a date on rotating pastures, you will end up either over-grazing them or under-grazing them. It takes a trained eye to decide how much grazing is enough, and how much is too much. I prefer to err on the side of under-grazing, rather than take the chance of over- grazing a pasture. Too often people don’t move the cattle quick enough. Under grazing doesn’t cause too many problems, but overgrazing has consequences that take a lot of time and effort to reverse.
There are a few strategies I have used to mitigate the risk of loss in drought years. Of course, one advantage of stockers is the ease of putting wheels under them when you run out of grass, but there are other things I have used that are effective. One tool that I use is a drought insurance policy, which is beneficial in helping us through times of drought. Having ranches in Kansas has benefited our South Texas cattle herds as well as our Nebraska herds by having that range available when either property has an experienced a substantial drought. We were able to keep our cow numbers stable through the droughts by using our Kansas properties to winter cows on. An additional level of flexibility is afforded by having two additional smaller properties in this region that we can truck cattle to if the need arises. On the rare occasion that we have too much grass, we will take in pasture cattle, or use that extra grass to fuel prescribed burns.
Another tool I use is forward marketing of our feeder cattle. To be able to deliver the cattle at a certain weight on a certain date, you really need to plan your grazing accordingly so that you can meet those deadlines.
Results, an Ongoing Process
As I said earlier, when I started working with this property the ranch was stocked with 2000 stockers and 750 cows. The cattle were subsisting on brush, weeds, and any grass plant that would attempt to establish. The slightest drought would cripple the herd and profit was rare. In current times, we have restocked the ranch close to the same level. The difference now is that it is stocked based on the amount of established perennial grass and forage available. I am constantly evaluating it, and stocking accordingly. Of course, markets play a big role in my decision, but the amount of forage is the major factor. Mild to moderate droughts can now be tolerated while maintaining the herd, and profit is the norm under our current system.
We are not just interested in improving the range for the cattle, the wildlife health and habitat is very important to us. As much as the ranch improvements have benefited the cattle, the wildlife has also greatly improved. The changes implemented–the rotational grazing, prescribed burns, and brush control–have had a very beneficial effect on wildlife and habitat. As important as cattle are to this ranch, whitetail deer hunting is a significant source of revenue. I implemented a wildlife management plan which stressed harvesting only mature deer, and we have gone from having deer scoring 160 inches being our best, to now harvesting numerous deer over 200 inches, with some as big as 230+ inches. I keep extensive records on the deer harvest that document its improvement. This is all done in conjunction with the cattle grazing, because despite what most hunters believe, the two co-exist easily.
This has not been on overnight success story, though it is definitely a success. Of course there have been mistakes along the way, and all you can do is learn from them and move forward with your plan. My main frustration has always been being able to hire the right people. The labor pool for our type of ranch jobs is slim, and it’s just difficult to find responsible, reliable, capable help. IF you can find the right help, your job is a lot easier! This ranch operates with just 5-7 hands, plus myself, which averages out to over 20,000 acres per worker, so you can see we are all stretched pretty thin. On this ranch the help needs to be ready to do just about anything.
I feel a great deal of satisfaction and pride in being able to take a ranch that was over-grazed, over-stocked, and over-hunted in 2001, and bring it up to a state of production that earned it the Lone Star Land Steward Award in 2010. I am always striving to improve the ranch and to “work smarter, not harder”.
This article is from a presentation at the National Conference on Grazing Lands in 2015 put on by the National Grazing Lands Coalition. The 2018 conference is in Reno, Nevada, December 2 – 5. It’s one of the best conferences we’ve ever been to. The speakers are great and you can meet and interact with so many graziers! We highly recommend you put it on your calendar!