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Planned Grazing 11: Planning for Something Good

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's note: This is the eleventh 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.

Because land is not a liquid asset, the expression "land poor" is common in ranching circles. While the phrase expresses the hard truth about cash-flowing an operation, it also can cause people to overlook just how valuable their land is.

"In ranching, land is literally our most valuable asset," says Taylor Yeates, who operates the Leeray Ranch in Eastland and Stephens counties. To illustrate his point, Yeates says that land in their region is bringing around $1,750 an acre, meaning that a section is worth about $1.1 million.

"If you own a section of land in our part of the world, you're a millionaire," Yeates says. "Looking at it strictly from a business perspective, it just makes sense to manage your most valuable asset in a way that improves its condition and ultimately increases its value." At the Leeray Ranch, the family uses planned grazing and its decision-making tools to take care of the land.

The family purchased the ranch in 2002. According to Yeates, the property had been "hammered hard." Approximately 30 percent of the ranch was 90 to 100 percent bare ground, so he deferred grazing for 2 years, giving the land a chance to begin its recovery. While the land was resting, Yeates took an objective look at the ranch to determine how many acres were actually grazeable.

"The number of acres that you can actually graze can be vastly different from the number of acres you own," Yeates says. "You can't build a successful grazing system on grass that you hope to grow, you have to build the system — sometimes slowly — on the grass that you already have."

The land Yeates deemed ungrazeable got a second look as he evaluated what might be done to make it more productive.

"The ranch had some rough, rocky hills where grass wasn't going to grow and cattle weren't going to graze, so it made sense to leave that land in brush for wildlife," Yeates says.

Initially invasive brush covered 50 percent of the ranch, but for optimum use by livestock and wildlife the family wanted about 30 percent brush cover. Wildlife such as whitetail deer, quail, turkey and doves have benefitted enormously from the brush removal and brush sculpting, as well as grazing management. These measures combined with the family's deer management plan have resulted in an increase in deer weights and antler scores.

He says, in many places the land was covered by alkaline washes, which makes it almost impossible to re-establish grass, but it is well-suited for holding water. Because the family owned a bulldozer, Yeates had it at his disposal and used it to build 22 stock tanks on these areas, increasing the number of existing tanks to 41 and enhancing water availability and grazing distribution.

In spots where the soil was deeper and more productive, Yeates began taking steps to reclaim them. After shearing the mesquite, Yeates used a Lawson aerator to break up the compacted soil surface, which increases water infiltration and incorporates any existing organic material into the soil. The aerator was also an effective tool in managing the prickly pear, where Yeates combined aeration with a treatment of Grazon® P+D.

The Lawson aerator, which is equipped with a broadcast seeder, also allowed Yeates to reseed where necessary with native grasses in a single pass. The reseeded areas are kept out of rotation for a year to allow the grass to get established. After a year, Yeates sprays the re-established grassland with a broadleaf herbicide to ensure that the new grass stays ahead of the weeds. To keep undesirable weed species in check, Yeates sprays the ranch on a rotational schedule. Each year about one-quarter of the ranch is lightly treated, meaning that a pasture is treated once every 4 years. He has found Cimarron Max to be a cost effective product for these treatments.

"When you mention spraying, people think that you're trying to wipe out entire species," Yeates says. "In our case, we're just keeping the undesirable species under control. In a healthy ecosystem, everything has a place and fills a role, but you have to keep it in balance." In the shallower soils where erosion is a potential problem, Yeates uses a tree shear mounted on a skid steer to clip the mesquites.

When shearing he cuts 2 out of every 3 mesquites and all of the cedars. The stump is treated with a mix of chemicals to prevent resprouting. To encourage the re-establishment of grass, Yeates drops the cut tree on a patch of bare ground. As the tree decays, it provides organic matter and cover for the soil, catches native grass seed and protects the grass seedlings from grazing. Using this combination, Yeates recovered more than 70 percent of the bare soil in the ranch's upland areas in just 7 years.

To further invigorate the grass, the ranch, which is a cow-calf operation, uses a 1-herd rotation system. The cattle are kept in a particular pasture for about 10 to 18 days. The 13 pastures in the rotation get about 6 months to rest and recover before being grazed again. Due to conservative stocking rates and effective grazing management the desirable grasses, such as switchgrass, Indiangrass and eastern gamma grass are increasing where KR bluestem, silver bluestem and threeawn grasses previously dominated.

"In a perfect world, we like to take 25 percent of a grass plant during its growing season and 25 percent of the plant during its dormant season," Yeates says. "This keeps the plants and roots healthy, allowing them to respond well to rain or better survive a drought." Another plus is that the constant rotation helps minimize problems with flies and parasites because the cattle are gone from the pasture by the time any larvae hatched in the cow dung matures.

Of course the world isn't always perfect and that's where the flexibility of planned grazing can be most beneficial.

In 2009, the Leeray Ranch was honored by the Society for Range Management, Texas Section, and Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association for its outstanding grazing program. Then, just a few weeks later on April 9, 2009, the progress literally went up in smoke. A wildfire roared through the ranch, leaving 90 percent completely burned. Yeates and his family barely saved their home and their barns. Only 2 pastures were spared. Fortunately, those hadn't been grazed.

Yeates held his cattle on ungrazed pastures for a month each, twice as long as he normally leaves cattle in one place. Then, he began using the burned country, reducing the grazing time from his normal 2 weeks to 1 week. The cattle are passing through the pastures every 3½ to 4 months instead of every 6 months. Once the ranch is fully recovered, Yeates will return to his preferred 2-week rotation.

The basis for this decision will be the condition of the rangeland and the amount of forage he has available for grazing.

"As a rancher, you have to be constantly aware of the amount of forage that is available to your cows," Yeates says. "You have to get out there with them and know what they're eating when. It's fascinating to me how, at different times of the year, different plants have different palatability. If you've got a diversity of plant life, those cows will find what they need."

His herd begins calving in mid-February to early March to take advantage of spring grasses. He sells his calves straight off the cows in early to mid-September to avoid the "glut" of calves coming on the market in October. As the calves mature, he noted it's important to remember their impact on the overall forage supply.

"Sometimes people overlook the impact that a calf crop can have on their forage, but every 6-weight calf you have walking around is 0.75 of an animal unit," Yeates says. "If you have 100 cows each with a 6-weight calf, you've got the equivalent of 75 additional cows on the ground."

He says this isn't a management problem, but it is a management consideration. Like all the management considerations on the Leeray Ranch, it all comes back to cattle, forage and ultimately a way of life.

"When you restore the health of the ecosystem, then all the other elements of production fall into place," Yeates says. "This is a business, but it's also a labor of love. Planned grazing lets us look at things from a business perspective, an environmental perspective and a life quality perspective. Because we try to look at the whole picture, we've had the chance to take a piece of abused land and turn it into something good."

"Planned Grazing 11 - "Planning for Something Good" is from the November 2010 issue of The Cattleman magazine.