Overview of brush control and management on the Melton Ranch

PAUL MELTON, Melton Ranch, Roby, Texas

The Melton Ranch, located in Fisher County, comprises 3,000 acres of native rangeland. The ranch was acquired in the late-1980s and has had various brush management practices conducted since that time. Mesquite is the major brush species on the ranch, with lesser amounts of lotebush, chittam and catclaw mimosa. My goals for the ranch have been to (a) enhance the livestock carrying capacity for the ranch while (b) improving the land for wildlife, especially bobwhite quail. The wildlife goal has become increasingly important since about 1988.

Brush control practices began in the late-1960s under the USDA’s Great Plains program. Much of the ranch was chained, which only made the mesquite and pricklypear mad! Since that time, most of my control efforts have been treating this regrowth. Also, prior to 1988 the ranch had been heavily grazed, literally “subsistence ranched” for the previous 30 years. Currently stocking rates (cattle only) average about 1 animal unit per 25-30 acres (depending on forage availability and weather conditions), which is the proper stocking rate for this country. A rotational grazing system using a single herd of cattle is rotate through the pastures depending on forage availability, and water availability in the stock ponds for that particular pasture.

In 1988, I began using brush control practices designed to enhance the ranch’s quail habitat. Selective grubbing and selective roller chopping have been used to “sculpt” the habitat for bobwhites. Today I use the roller chopper as my main implement of choice. It provides good control of the mesquite regrowth, and the soil disturbance enhances forb production for quail and grass production for quail and cattle. Most of the roller chopping has been done as a follow-up after selective grubbing of the bigger mesquites. Dollar for dollar, I think the roller chopper is the best investment I’ve made for brush work.

I have experimented with chopping strips ranging from 70 to 120 yards in width. The 120-yard wide strips look way too barren, especially during the winter when the mesquites are defoliated. That said however, I still flushed a good number of quail from those areas, but this pasture was always the best quail pasture on the ranch. My advice is to err on the conservative side when contemplating your clearing strip widths.

I began using prescribed burns in 1992 as a means to control primarily pricklypear infestations. Since that time, burns have been conducted on every pasture on the ranch. Fuel load (grass) is critical to the success of a prescribed burn, and my grazing goals operate with that in mind. My fuel loads have ranged from about 2,500 to 4,000 lbs/ac. I’ve followed up the late-winter burns with 0.25 lb/acre of picloram, and have observed variable results on pricklypear and tasajillo control with this system. I’ve experienced more consistent control with the fire plus picloram system on other sites (e.g., Shackelford County), but for whatever reasons, the control has been less predictable on this ranch. Costs for this treatment have been about $4 to 5 per acre for the burn (not including an opportunity cost for lost grazing when the pasture was rested) and $13.25 per acre for the picloram. Most of the burns conducted have ranged from 300 up to 1,000 acres in size. Depending on my goals for the burn, burning conditions vary from “cool” to “hot.”

In recent years I have been using spot spray treatments to control regrowth mesquite with a mixture of Remedy and diesel in hand sprayers using 8 ounces of Remedy and 3 gallons of diesel. It has worked very well on slick-barked mesquite.

As a result of my habitat management, complemented with some intensive predator control, I have been able to maintain bobwhite populations higher than the surrounding areas. My efforts in quail management are especially evident during the “hard” quail years (e.g., 1996). I could consistently flush 20 to 22 coveys per day on this ranch in the fall of 1996, when the adjoining properties were hard pressed to flush a third as many coveys. I closely monitor the hunting pressure on the quail population; most years it’s “light”, and there are some years when no quail are taken.

My advice to someone contemplating “sculpting” brush for wildlife is to work closely to communicate your intentions to your dozer operator. Most dozer operators need a little “enlightenment” to realize that land management goals may be different from what they’re used to with traditional cattle production. As such, this calls for close communication and monitoring between the landowner and the brush contractor.

Comments: Dale Rollins, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist
Updated: Mar. 18, 1997