The Flying G Ranch: a success story for brush sculpting

GIL HODGE, BARRY WILCOX, AND JOE BONNER, Flying G Ranch – Cometa Division, Cometa, Texas

MIKE GIBBS, Rawhide Cattle Co., La Pryor, Texas

The mission statement of the Flying G Ranch is to use brush management techniques to convert dense areas of South Texas Brush into productive habitat primarily for quail and the hunting of them, secondly, for white-tailed deer and third, to establish areas for cattle grazing.

Project background

The Flying G Ranch-Cometa Division contains 4,200 acres, divided into four pastures. The improved target area is a 1,780-acre, newly acquired addition to the ranch. The ranch terrain is made up of open grazing areas with mixed brush communities covering most of the range. A control plot was set up to obtain a sample of the brush community. The dominant brush species, in order of magnitude, include: mesquite, guajillo, prickly pear, cacti, black brush, whitebrush, sage, brasil, Texas persimmon, lotebush, tasahillo,and granjeno. Some of the grasses rounding out this diverse community include: red grama, pink pappusgrass, curly mesquite, sandbur, knotroot bristlegrass, and various threeawns.

A look at the previous uses of the improved acreage helps to round out the picture of the ranch. The targeted area for improvement was previously utilized almost solely for beef production. Without any apparent grazing system, the range had been overgrazed by the cow-calf operation. Water distribution was limited, with only two small surface water tanks. One of the tanks was overgrown and therefore not frequently used by the cattle; the other was partially overgrown, but was fed by runoff from a windmill and had a concrete trough nearby.

With this picture of the ranch, the project began. First, to determine if the range resources were capable of supporting the improvement objectives, an overall assessment was made by the owner, wildlife manager, and contractor by pooling their previous knowledge and information made available by the Texas A&M University System-La Copita Research Area. This survey provided a planning base to the owner and brush contractor creating and implementing improvement plans.

Evaluations of the target area displayed adequate wildlife populations and diverse communities of food and cover so the primary quail objective would be achieved.

A communication plan was established between the ranch owner, Gil Hodge, wildlife manager, Barry Wilcox, and the brush contractor, Mike Gibbs. The involved parties allotted specific times for daily communication to ensure project goals were met and problems solved in a timely manner. These daily discussions allowed each individual to remain informed on current progress and delays inherent in South Texas field work such as weather, logistics, land topography, and maintenance on mechanical equipment.

For example, one day the brush management contractor encountered a cap rock area in one of the improvement areas. He was able to discuss the problem with the wildlife manager on the same day, and the problem was solved quickly.

A project budget, monitoring and control plan was also established. The major components of the project and the total job cost to date was reviewed weekly. As a result of this plan, the project was completed within the original budget.

Goals achieved

The communication plan created an efficient way of reaching the goals for more productive quail, white-tailed deer, and cattle habitats. The habitat improvement plan included considerations of the existing range resources, and the objectives of the owner and wildlife manager.

Quail goals. All quail habitat goals were achieved with an added plus; that dove propagation will benefit from any environmental enhancement for quail. This first goal involved quail breeding and hatching. The maximum amount of edge habitat preferred by quail was to be created. Breeding pairs do not like to travel more than twenty yards from edge “security”, where they feel safe; therefore, brush strips were established in widths of 50 to 150 feet. The treated areas were from 100 to 150 foot widths. The ranch owner desired an increase in the overall number of pairs per acre.

The second goal was the growth and survival of quail. The improved brush arrangement made a broad array of nesting sites available and provided diverse cool areas for shelter. These increase survival and produce a better crop of birds. Furthermore, a mixture of grasses, grains, and forbes was planted, which provided high quality initial feed, attracted insects necessary for developing chicks, and established different cover types.

The final consideration included managing brush to correspond with the desired hunting method to harvest quail. The owner’s desire is for maximum hunter enjoyment, with an increased number of covey rises in a given area; as opposed to strictly a large amount of harvested birds. The area would be hunted with a bird dog rig, traveling behind pointers, and hunting into the wind. The arrangement of the majority of brush strips utilized prevailing winds, aiding scenting conditions for bird dogs working within sight of the hunters and bird dog rig. The special arrangement of the perimeter strips allows for hunting when winds changed direction.

Deer and cattle goals. The second overall objective for the ranch concerned white-tailed deer and improved beef production. The first consideration for white-tails was breeding. Brush management goals were to newly establish or allow to remain, the preferred areas of brush along creek corridors. The second consideration of white-tails is for survival, especially of fawns.

By leaving aforementioned cover types, survival rates will be higher. Other incentives to leaving creek corridors covered are control of erosion and water retention by the soil, and an increase in insect life, aiding quail chick survival. The final consideration involving white-tails is the method of hunting used. The hunts will be conducted on foot; therefore, good visibility and downwind capability of approach is naturally provided by the layout.

To enhance beef production, objectives were to increase carrying capacity and establish a flexible grazing system. New perennial grasses were introduced as an integral part of treatment, thereby increasing the carrying capacity of the range. In addition, several native grasses were stimulated by the treatments. A seasonal grazing system involving a flexible four to six month grazing period using feeder cattle was selected.

To help prevent overgrazing, the distribution of water across the range was also improved. This included construction of four additional tanks, a concrete water trough, as well as supplementary water piped into a holding tank, helping feed a chain of ponds in a common watershed. These allow for maximum conservation of water during rainfall. The continuous filling of the first tank allows the creek corridor downstream to remain moist, thereby raising insect levels which helps quail chicks survive. The new water distribution improves forage availability for cattle. The provision of additional tanks prevents selective overgrazing, since cattle will tend to overgraze areas in a close radius to a water source.

Brush management plan and implementation

The layout plan. The target area for improvement was a 1,780 acre, newly acquired addition to the Flying G Ranch. The scheme developed for brush management of this property consisted of a border band and the division of the 1,780 acreage into three distinct units; addressed as Unit I, Unit II, and III. The treatments and layout of each unit were defined by brush composition, primary, and secondary objectives of the project.

This first step in the plan was to establish a perimeter border of a thirty-foot roadway. Inside this perimeter, a 50-foot brush band was allowed to remain adjacent to the perimeter roadway. The 50-foot brush band encompasses the project area. The perimeter band of 150 feet of treatment strip provided an alternative hunting opportunity when winds changed from the prevailing direction of northwest to southeast.

The second step in the plan relates to the layout of Unit I and Unit II, and Unit III (Fig. 1)). The prevailing winds are from the southeast to the northwest. Therefore, to accomplish the primary objective(improved quail hunting)of the project, the bands of hunting strips were laid out lengthwise with the prevailing winds. The dimensions of Unit I bands are: 30 feet of skimmed and stacked brush with a 150 foot “treatment” strip, another 30 feet of skimmed and stacked brush on the other side, 50 feet of untreated brush, then the pattern repeats itself. The untreated brush width was increased to 150 feet on every fourth band to allow more cover for quail and whitetail deer.

Unit II had alternating bands. Beginning with a strip of 30 feet of skimmed and stacked brush, followed by a 150 foot treatment strip, then 30 feet of skimmed and stacked brush, followed by 150 feet of untreated brush. The pattern then repeats.

Unit III was desired to be a more natural area by the owner and wildlife manager. The hunters would experience the brush country quail hunt and not the grass field hunting of Units I and II. “Treatment” roads leading out of Unit II into Unit III have 30- foot widths and enter a motte country with improved grassy area surrounding the mottes of native brush. The diversity of this unit assists in the secondary objective of improving habitat for white-tailed deer.

The implementation. Along with the arrangement of widths and locations of brush, the “treatments” of all units have significant impact in producing a more productive environment for wildlife and domestic use. The “treatment” of the border band and first two units consisted of the following: stacking, rootplowing, deep discing, rootraking, farm discing, then planting with a seed mix, using a Vaquero seeder designed by Pogue Seed Co.

The significance of the treatment in the border band and first two units are as follows: Stacking uproots or sheers off woody plants at ground line and gathers the larger debris off of the area to be treated further. Rootplowing shears off plants approximately one foot below soil surface to separate the roots from the budding zone of most brush species. A deep disc treatment following the rootplow helped to turn under and breakdown plants left on the surface by the rootplow. The root rake removes woody plant crowns and root tissue reducing the possibility of resprouting. Farm discing the soil after the root rake levels out the soil and maximizes seed sprouting percentage. The seeding of the soil completes the treatment of the project site leaving a variety of perennial grassses dispersed among annual food crops (see Table 1 for the seed mixture used).

The Unit III “treatment” consisted of following, in order of performance: roller chopping the brush with a tandem drum chopper which penetrated the soil for aeration, stimulating native grasses, diminishing the size of the brush, and defining the motts of brush to be left in their present state; root raking the debris left on the surface into rows for stacking and burning, which diminishes the amount of regrowth of prickly pear; deep discing the chopped area turning under debris not collected by the root rake and preparing the soil for seeding; then seeding the plowed area with the Pogue seed mix and Vaquero seeder.

Future management success

Ensuring the ongoing success of this project, a follow-up plan has been proposed. Having previously operated a 3-year program on their southern ranch near La Gloria, Flying G Ranch owner, Gil Hodge, and wildlife manager, Barry Wilcox, are aware that each ranch situation requires individual assessment and corresponding variable treatment plans. A future management plan for the Flying G Ranch Project involves deep discing around all brush and open motte areas in March of each year. The first year will be deep disced, at 18 inches, and then followed up with a farm disc. The second and following years will be treated with only a heavy farm disc. These treatments will be followed by a planting program of cultivated grains, determined year to year, which may be utilized by quail, whitetails and cattle. The treated senderos of perennial grasses and the fence lines also, will be treated by a spot spraying chemical technique developed by the Texas A&M University System-Brush Busters Program.

A predator control program was set up to reduce coyote numbers to increase quail chick and white-tail fawn survival. The Texas Animal Damagae Control Service initially reduced coyote numbers with cyanide guns and snares for a 1-month period. After which, a continuous reduction program was designed using accepted methods such as rifles and snares for coyotes, and hog traps for feral hogs.

The management feels they will attain maximum agricultural and recreational revenue return from their investments. All objectives have been achieved and the project is a success.

Figure 1. Aerial photograph showing brush patterns on Flying G Ranch.

Table 1. Seeding mixture components used for wildlife plantings on the Flying G Ranch.

Species planted Use by wildlife and livestock
Browntop Millet Provide large seed for quality food during the first year; possible cover for quail, shade for other upcoming grasses.
Hegari Provide large quality seed for first year food, possible cover for quail; some shade for upcoming grasses.
Hubam Clover Provide quail chicks green food supply, moisture and to attract insects.
Verde Kleingrass Seed utilized by birds; forage for cattle.
Texas Panicum Produce seed for quail; forage for cattle.
Plains Bristlegrass Supply quail with food; forage for cattle.
Sesame Supplies large seed for quality first year food; cover for quail; some shade for upcoming grasses; fair drought tolerance.
Native Sunflower Provides preferred seed for quail and dove; cover when grown in wide strips.
Alamo Switchgrass Perennial bunchgrass that provides quail food and cover.
Old World Bluestem A bunchgrass planted to provide nesting sites in open pasture areas.

Comments: Dale Rollins, Professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist

Updated: Mar. 18, 1997

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