Brush management efforts in Shackelford County

ALAN HEIRMAN, District Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Albany, Texas

ROCKY VINSON, County Extension Agent, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, Albany, Texas

Many of you in the audience today are familiar with the Fort Griffin Fandangle which is held each year at Albany. You are probably wondering by now what this has to do with our topic of brush management. A passage that has been used in each of the15 Fandangles since 1982 states “Not so long ago in the lost time before the Indian, the prairie was a wide space. No mesquites crowded the earth then to mark distance against the sky. There was only the wide savannah generous and mean, at the same time able to give a man deep joy and great grief. It was a thousand miles from nowhere and its rolling hills and plains seemed to stretch a 1,000 miles farther westward. Its size could swallow a man on foot. Tall grasses often as high as an Indian’s thigh waved in the wind as it swept through them.”

Periodic range-fires and the mobile free-roaming nature of bison and other wild herbivores, were conducive to the perpetuation of the vast grasslands. However, by the earlier 1900’s fences which restricted livestock movement, suppression of wildfires, and overgrazing allowed for the encroachment of mesquite and associated brushy species. This drastically changed the landscape of Texas rangelands.

In the period from 1950 through 1970, ranchers in Shackelford County thought in terms of brush eradication. Entire pastures were aerially sprayed or treedozed with little regard for wildlife. During this time frame, wildlife provided little if any revenue to Shackelford County ranchers. But, about 1985 this changed dramatically. Shackelford County ranchers were receiving less revenue from their oil and gas and the cost of inputs into producing beef had continued to escalate. Because of this unfavorable economic climate, Shackelford County ranchers treated less brush and wildlife began increasing, especially deer. Ranchers started leasing their land to hunters for about a $1.00 an acre. Today a typical Shackelford County ranch will lease for at least $5.00 per acre.

Our ranchers look at the proliferation of mesquite and associated brushy species as both good and bad. Too much brush makes viewing or checking cattle virtually impossible and gathering cattle difficult at best. Brush further competes with the more preferred grassy vegetation for ground moisture and nutrition. To partially rid their rangeland of this unwanted enemy, ranchers spend literally thousands of dollars each year on various brush treatment methods.

For wildlife, mesquites and other associated brushy species are viewed in a different manner. They provided needed food and cover for Shackelford County deer, quail, and turkey. This has attributed to their increasing numbers with a resultant increase in the demand for hunting in Shackelford County.

How much brush is too much or too little? This is the question of the day or dilemma facing Shackelford County ranchers as well as others ranchers. Once you have answered this question, it becomes a matter of manipulating the vegetation on your ranch to meet your goals. This can be accomplished by mechanical or chemical treatments or prescribe burning.

A method that is gaining rapid acceptance in Shackelford Country is individual plant treatment using all terrain vehicles. This allows the rancher to sculpt his land and replace a portion of brush with grasses and forbs. This program offers a “shopping” approach to brush management because you can pick and choose which plants to remove and leave. By selectively treating brush you can increase grass production while maintaining quality wildlife habitat.

In 1995, the Shackelford County Range and Wildlife Management Association received a grant to pay for the partial purchase of a four-wheel ATV’s and sprayer to be used by employees of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Shackelford County Extension Service in brush demonstration research.

Numerous plots with varying densities of mesquites were treated in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Mesquites were treated in areas that had previously been prescribe burned and contained, one, two, and three year old resprouts. Mesquites that were not prescribe burned were sprayed as well. Cost data and mortality have been collected for three years and have provided useful information.

Sixteen ranchers are now using ATVs in their brush management program in Shackelford County. Interest continues to grow and has been generated by three field days. The first field day was held just prior to the purchase of our ATV on the Lambshead Ranch. Approximately thirty ranchers were present, when Dr. Allan McGinty and Dr. Darrell Ueckert demonstrated and explained individual plant treatment on mesquites using ATVs. At this time, there were only four ATVs being used for brush work.

Most Shackelford County ranchers are indeed sculpting the landscape by being selectively in their removal of brush species such as mesquite. A.V. Jones, Jr. and Billy Green of Albany are trying to maintain the current blend of brush on their 20,000-acre Newell Ranch. As are most Shackelford County ranchers, they are concentrating their treatment efforts on the more productive soils where grass response will be greatest rather than the less productive hill sides and shallow range sites. Since 1995, over three thousand acres have been treated using ATVs. However, it is a constant battle which requires carefully planning.

Several large ranches in Shackelford County are utilizing ATVs primarily for treating unwanted brush species in their fences. We have 21 ranches exceeding 9,000 acres. Just to treat the perimeter fence, on a ranch this size, requires treating at lease fifteen miles of fence. We must not forget cross fences. Now if you were on the Nail and Matthews Ranches you would be looking at treating at least sixty miles of perimeter fences.

We are not here to sell ATV but Shackelford County ranches have found other uses for their machines such as: during checking, moving, and feeding of their cattle; checking fences; fence construction; during prescribe burns for ignition and fire patrol; utilized in place of a pickup when the roads are muddy; and reach previously unaccessible areas. They haven’t replaced the horse, yet. But one rancher noted, at least they don’t require feed when there not working.

Cost share for treating brush is available through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program in most Texas counties. In Shackelford County, we have written contracts that include individual plant treatment.

We must not let Texas rangeland become so heavily infested with brushy species that it is of little value to wildlife or livestock. Remember, good range and wildlife management go hand in hand. The rancher needs a combination of grasses, forbs, and brushy species to benefit both his domestic livestock and wildlife. What is the best method of treating brush and how much do you treat? This is the question each one of you must answer. But remember, brush management can benefit livestock and wildlife if properly planned. Conversely, it can be a detriment to wildlife without the right approach. There is no substitute for planning. GOOD LUCK!!!

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

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