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Like a Prairie – A Big Picture View of Grazing Management

By   /  December 4, 2017  /  6 Comments

Welcome to Will Kearney, a new On Pasture author. In this series, Will Kearney introduces a big idea about how we might manage prairies in a way more consistent with their ecological history and that could improve the landscape and our success as ranchers.

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I sometimes joke with my family that we need to go into the Giraffe business, since after all they’re supposed to have adapted such long necks in order to browse the acacia trees of Africa, and it won’t be long before the cousins of those trees, the Huisache and Mesquite, are all that’s left of our ranch.

Example of huisache overgrowth in pasture. Photo from Texas AgriLife. Click to read more about a huisache control effort. Or click here to see how to pronounce this word.

I think I speak for many livestock raisers in our region when I say that the toll of fighting the North American acacia has been high. Our efforts to keep our own land free of this tree have taken the form of expensive poisons such as the 50/50 Remedy and diesel blend. It has never sat well with me, putting diesel and poison on our land, and when I think of the results of these efforts I am struck by how much money we have handed over to the chemical companies.

We’ve made some progress lately with a bulldozer, but it is also an expensive machine. Between the diesel, the breakdowns, and time spent, I often wonder if it’s worth it. Then there is the upfront cost of the machine—which amounted to around US $30,000. All in all, the ranch has spent thousands and thousands on the problem and little sprouts of acacia trees continue to appear in our fields.

But the alternative is simply to hand over a way of life and a love of open land to the invaders and think of another way to make a living. To me, this is unacceptable. We need to think of new ways of approaching this problem–otherwise, we’ll just be “throwing good money after bad.”

Confronting nature means confronting ourselves. We need to look at the evidence dispassionately to understand our own position and to accept the tradeoffs that come with it. For example, the economic forces that propelled the Gulf Coast region to abandon sod-busting after the close of the Civil War and convert the land towards cattle production transformed the region. This has had a profound impact still being felt today. People tend only to think in terms of days, weeks, and occasionally in terms of years, but we must tell the ecological history of our region if we are going to effectively combat the spread of acacias—or come to accept them.

Before settlers began arriving in the 1800’s, the land was unfenced and open. Periodic, low-intensity fires kept the Post Oak savannah and Blackland prairies clean and open. Woody species had to compete for light within a matrix of rapid recovering tall-grass prairie species. Bison travelled throughout the prairies in seasonal migrations, following the propulsive force of predators, instinct, and weather. These forces shaped the grasslands that once covered the cattle country of Texas, and which the first settlers of the region found so delightful. The prairies are why the towns of Texas have names like “Lone Oak” and “Eden.” And, many have found, they are why water flowed abundantly from artesian springs across the state.

The story of how Huisache and Mesquite, two thorny trees in the legume family, spread out and colonized the grassy prairies of Texas is also the story of the cultural, ecological, and economic transformations of the settlement of Texas that shifted open, fenceless landscapes to ranches to farms and homesteads. What exists today are increasingly smaller parcels of land, with fence lines that act as superhighways for rapidly colonizing woody species. Other, windborne colonizers take rapid advantage of bare, overgrazed soil and propagate exponentially. Seemingly impervious to drought, and incredibly well suited to sprouting back from the roots into full blow trees, huisache trees bring to mind the idea of indestructibility. If bison, fire, and tall grass species shaped the prairie–then we must admit the fact that the huisache and mesquite are our natural counterpart–in fact, they are a kind of mirror.

We should not give in to self-deception when we look in this mirror. We tell ourselves the myth that these trees “invaded” the grassland, when, in reality a more relevant “invader” regarding this discussion would be the European idea of property division and ownership. We all believe that the little piece of paper in the courthouse is the most important feature of a piece of land, but we forget that the ecological history of the land is ignorant of this. It just so happened that Huisache and Mesquite had long been kept at bay by fire and competition from tall grass until the idea of “parcels” of land became physically manifest on the prairie in the form of barbed wire. This is a story that has been canonized in western mythology: It is the story of Lonesome Dove, the perishing of the buffalo, and the wire-cutting cowboys. Of course, those days are gone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn any lessons from the prairie. If you have ever spent any time on a prairie, you know how open and connected it feels to everything else around it. Ecologists speak of energy as passing up and down the ecological web between predators and prey, and on a prairie, this takes place in a uniquely visual way. The hawks swoop down on prairie dogs, turkeys browse under the canopy of Post Oak trees, and the prairie chickens put on displays to attract a mate. Even the wind passes through as if uninhibited. For livestock producers such as myself, the greatest joy is being able to see fat, happy cattle “going to graze” on fresh grass.

For me, the lesson is clear. If we want grasslands, we have to start thinking in more open, connecting ways. If we remain closed off from each other, then our land will also grow more closed.

Blackland prairie

That sounds fine, but I wasn’t born yesterday. I’m a rancher and I also think in terms of the bottom line. I want to make a profit as much as the next person, and I want to do it by raising cattle. I believe there is a way to do both, and solve a lot of problems along the way.

Here’s one way ranchers and livestock producers in our area could take a lesson from the prairie and connect with each other to bring back some of the forces that shaped it, stem the tide of land “parceling” into smaller and smaller fragments, and possibly create a more economically sustainable ranching model. The idea is simply to combine neighboring herds of cattle into one large herd, and rotate them between properties. This would free up recovery times between grazing periods on any individual property or pasture, allow landowners to do prescribed burns, and emulate the high-intensity and low-frequency grazing that grassland ecosystems evolved to withstand.

Stock-sharing,” as we may as well coin the term, could also help stem the tide of property fragmentation. Landscapes that were connected more closely economically, culturally, and ecologically might be less prone to property divisions that negatively impact ranching and wildlife communities.

In addition, ranchers could take advantage of economies of scale that are inherent in cattle production.  After all, whether you are taking care of a thousand head of cattle or a hundred, you need approximately the same amount of equipment. This would lower costs for producers, increase the soil health and therefore productive health of the land, and pave the way for more effective cooperation on strategies to stem the huisache “invasion”—such as regular prescribed burns and brush clearing. In any case, the spread of acacia species is an ecologically scaled event, and therefore must be met with an ecologically scaled response.

Like I said, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know ranchers are a hard-headed lot. They are used to doing things their own way—in fact, I know plenty of neighbors who can’t even look each other in the eye, let alone cooperate on that level. But unless we can absorb these lessons, admit that the prairie only exists when it is connecting, exchanging, and interacting, then the lesson we may learn in the end is that acacia trees are here to stay.

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About the author

Will Kearney is a rancher living in Columbus, Tx with his wife Laura Dorsey. His primary focus is thinking about how to combine economics and ecology on the family ranch without screwing any one of those things up. He has worked on ranches in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in a variety of climates and with a diversity of different landowners. He has learned a lot from watching and paying attention to his dogs, his horses, and his cattle. Even more from books. And almost nothing from people who have all the answers.

6 Comments

  1. Mike McMurry says:

    I’m Mike McMurry. I’m a retired wildlife biologist and ranch manager
    in the Rio Grande Plains area of South Texas. Have a good bit of experience in rotational intensive grazing. Would like to have coffee with Will Kearney and visit. We’re practically neighbors these days. Well, 30 miles in Texas aint much of a trip…I’ll buy the coffee.
    Mike McMurry
    Rutersville (LaGrange), Texas

  2. Patrick Tobola says:

    Will,
    Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    My ranch is in neighboring Lavaca County. What I have observed over the last several years is that if you will actually kill all or most of the established plants of these two species (I prefer the cut stump method using remedy and deisel) and establish a thick sward of grass, then the problem becomes much easier to manage because you are then only dealing with new plants that have germinated and they do not seem to germinate at the same rate every year. Unfortunately it appears that these species tend to germinate at a higher rate in prairie than in something like a pure stand of bermudagrass or bahiagrass since there is more open ground between the bunch grasses than the sod type grasses. Also the explosion of white tail deer that has occurred in our area over the last 50 years seems to have helped with the spread of these two species. I have noticed colonies of new plants emerge some years where the deer regularly bed down in the tall grass prairie. I think having the seed encapsulated in the manure gives it an advantage to germinate and establish.

    I have found that going over the land every three years and using the cut stump method and treating with 25% remedy plus diesel is sufficient to keep the land open when only dealing with new plants and it’s easier to see them after they have grown over several years. The hard part is the initial clearing and killing of the established plants.

  3. LeAnn says:

    Try multi-species grazing. In North Dakota, I don’t have experience with mesquite and acacia, but my goats adore most woody plants. When I’m working on the orchard or shelterbelt, all those trimmings head to the goat corral for a treat after their normal grazing. That’s why our prairies had buffalo, deer, antelope, rabbits and all sorts of other creatures. They each prefer certain species and kept things in check.

  4. Gene Schriefer says:

    As our dairy farms left and the land got parcellized into 40 acre rural estates, the pastures became more and more disconnected with each new landowner and woody species invaded what had been more oak savanna landscape.

    Putting the pastures back together and bring in larger groups of heavy grazers would help control the woody species and keep the landscape open. A 20 acre pasture simply is not worth the effort for the number of head it would support.

  5. Karen Scopel says:

    Great article. I love this line of thinking. Now if we could just get neighboring landowners to recognize the benefits and join the effort.

  6. Luke says:

    Good gosh! It sounds like your advocating communism. The solution to any problem is always standing under my hat. I expect very little from other ranchers and they seldom disappoint me.
    I bought a place with a dense mesquite problem (mostly 4″ or smaller trunk) and one day per week I would go out dark to dark and cut down trees, stack brush, and my wife followed behind with Remedy-diesel mix and painted the stumps using a paintbrush. This minimized collateral damage and expense. It was a lot of hard work, but I can say it was over 95% effective.
    Today if I see a mesquite sprout I get it cut and “painted” pronto. This will be ongoing of course because many in our area just “let it go” when it comes to mesquites. I cleared and maintained 200 acres this way. I’ve go some mature mesquite woods to finish (one foot and bigger) and I’m killing them one tree at a time.

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