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August 2010

Planned Grazing 8 - Wildlife in the Mix

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's Note:  This is the eighth installment in a 12-part series on planned grazing. This series has been created in partnership with Dr. Richard Teague, associate resident director and professor at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Vernon; Dr. C. Wayne Hanselka, a private range management consultant based in Corpus Christi, who also serves as professor and Extension specialist emeritus with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service; and individual ranchers experienced in using planned grazing.

On many operations, managing wildlife is as much a part of ranching as working cattle. Because profit margins have tightened for traditional livestock operations, successful ranchers have recognized that wildlife management is an additional source of income and have embraced the opportunity to further enhance the natural resources in their care.

Chris Gill, whose family owns the 32,000-acre Circle Ranch located northwest of Van Horn in Hudspeth County, says, "Ecological science underlies everything we do. Science, not deeply held beliefs, dictates our practices. When the range is in an improving condition, it's good for desert bighorns, elk, mule deer, scaled quail, lizards and anything else you'd like to name."

Gill admits that he didn’t come to the land with this understanding. Initially, the Circle Ranch was going to be a purely recreational ranch and the family was not going to allow grazing. But then a family friend, and fellow west Texas rancher, John Poindexter, introduced Gill to the principles of planned grazing and to Allan Savory, who originated the model after analyzing the impact of grazing animals on the semi-arid grazinglands of Africa.

Gill studied the decision-making model, learned more about the benefits of short-duration, high density grazing and changed his mind. The family implemented planned grazing in 2000 and uses three primary tools for managing the range. Those tools are cattle, erosion control to divert water from the roadbeds and eroded gullies back into rangelands, and, most recently, subsoiling to spread runoff and increase water infiltration. The ranch is in an 11-inch rainfall belt, so it's imperative to make the most of every drop of moisture.

Dr. Richard Teague, associate resident director and professor at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center, explains that subsoiling is the use of a subsoil plow or ripper. "Subsoil plows penetrate soil to depths of 20 to 36 inches to break up hardpan and packed soils. They have rippers that are pulled through the soil at the required depth without inverting the soil. It takes a tractor of 60- to 85-horsepower to pull a single subsoil point through a hard soil at a depth of 36 inches."

Teague says Chris uses a Keyline subsoil plow, which was developed in Australia. An Internet search on "subsoil plow" or "Keyline subsoil plow" will provide more information on the equipment.

Grazing as a habitat tool

Planned grazing has enabled them to spread the grazing impact over a greater portion of the landscape while using the cattle to improve the habitat for the wildlife by targeting the grazing at specific locations and times.

"Out here, you never know on what day the next drought begins," Gill says. "And when you don't know when it's going to rain again, you don’t know when your plants will recover, so you have to graze conservatively." The managers don’t have a specific target residual for forage, but instead use observation to determine how much can be saved without harming the plant, he says.

Even with their conservative mindset, the family has increased the productivity five-fold, as measured by harvested stock days per acre, improved wildlife habitat and numbers since implementing planned grazing.

This winter, Circle Ranch provided grazing for 900 cattle — a mixture of heifers, cows and calves. The heifers, which weighed about 600 punds when they were turned out, gained an average of one pound per day. The cows gained almost twice that.

The cows, which came off a big ranch in South Texas, had had very little human contact prior to arriving at the Circle Ranch. The interior fences, which are electric and often ground improperly because of low humidity, could not hold them.

To facilitate wildlife movement, the ranch staff takes down the electric fences when pastures are not in use. As a result, ranch management decided to loose-herd the cattle to sustain the benefits of high animal-density. The cattle herd was allowed to graze a specific area for about three days before being moved to the next area.

Generally, the ranch runs cattle from September to early June while the plants are dormant. The managers remove all livestock from the ranch during the 75-day summer growing season.

"Over the years, we've seen the emergence of new plants, and increased plant vigor," Gill says. "But maybe the most important thing we've seen is how quickly the plants respond to rainfall now. Initially, the rain would fall and for years the plants wouldn't respond. Now, a little moisture jump starts them."

Know what species you want to help

Of course, when managing for wildlife, improving the health of the plant communities is not enough.

"It's easy to assume that because you're helping plants, you're helping wildlife as well, but that's not always the case," Gill says. "Planned grazing is a tool and it must be applied with a species-specific understanding of what you’re trying to help. You can’t concentrate on one species and exclude all of the others. Instead, you must consider the system as a whole."

Earlier this year, the ranch manager was considering moving cattle into a pasture of sacaton, Gill says. As they discussed the move, Gill asked the manager where the turkeys were nesting. When the manager answered in the sacaton, it became clear that it would be harmful to the wildlife objectives to turn the cattle into that specific pasture right then. Because wildlife is a primary concern for the Circle Ranch, they decided to delay the grazing until after the turkey hatch.

Brush structure is unimportant to cattle, but critical to quail. Residual forage level makes little difference to plant health, but is where fawns and quail hide. Without abundant forbs, there are no sheep, quail or deer. Many ranchers, including many planned graziers, do not realize this.

"There is no one-size-fits-all answer for range management, because it depends on the objectives of the individual landowners," Gill says. "But, if you want to succeed in managing wildlife and livestock, then it is important to get both wildlife and range management information and put them together. By all means talk to experts, but don't be afraid to read the research for yourself. Once you strip out the jargon, most is just applied common sense."

Teague says, "Just remember that most range and wildlife scientists are not aware of what planned grazing can achieve when targeted to achieve specific goals. Find out what each wildlife species needs through the year and conduct your grazing to fulfill these requirements."

On the Circle Ranch, they manage for bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, turkey, quail and cattle, with cattle filling the evolutionary role historically held by bison. The cattle and elk eat mostly grass, the deer, sheep and pronghorn eat mostly forbs. The birds eat insects living on forbs and seeds produced by the plants including forbs.

"The animals don’t eat the same plants in the same ways, so you need diversity — a community of animals that interact with a community of plants. And let's not forget soil life, without which nothing could live," Gill says.

Adopting planned grazing and concentrating on the ways different animals use different plants has helped Gill consider the range from a different perspective. For instance, he used to consider all forbs as "useless weeds" and spent time and money trying to remove them, Gill says. Today, he considers them as valuable as grass, because they provide food and cover for quail, and baby deer, pronghorn and sheep -- arguably the family’s most treasured species.

"Instead of spiking out creosote, which usually kills forbs and does Lord-knows-what to soil life, now we are subsoiling to get grass to grow beneath it," Gill says.

"Obviously, it's a balancing act," Gill says. "I think of the ranch as a single organism with all of the plants, birds, mammals, and other living things being part of the whole. If you lose one part, other parts also die and the overall health of the body suffers. Our goal is to do what is best for each individual part without harming any of the others."

For additional information on the Circle Ranch and links to more information on Planned Grazing, see circleranchtx.com.


"Planned Grazing 8 - "Wildlife in the Mix" is from the July 2010 issue of The Cattleman magazine.