Tallgrass Revival

Grass Is the Moneymaker

Karl Ebel and his family have spent the past 16 years turning Ebel Grasslands Ranch into a profitable, environmentally responsible operation, home to 120 cows and 45 mama goats. (Progressive Farmer photo by Dan Crummett)

Sixteen years ago, the Ebel Grasslands Ranch was a 680-acre worn-out brush patch, abandoned in the 1950s by six families that gave up cotton farming on the gray loam fields near Sulphur Bluff, in northeast Texas. To further degrade the place, the vacant fields, which had been in row-crop production since the 1830s, were then severely overgrazed for several years, leaving mainly woody underbrush and lower successional grass species as the main cover.

That was the land Karl Ebel bought in 2001 with the dream of returning it to the productivity it had before the first plow began turning the area's thick native tallgrass prairie into rows of unprotected soil.

Today, with just over 1,000 acres of pasture, Ebel and his family make a living on those once-depleted fields using intensive rotational grazing and annual prescribed burns to maintain and improve their pastures. The ranch is 70% native pastures with the rest supporting introduced grasses such as bermudagrass, bahiagrass and dallisgrass.

"As our ranch's name implies, we're a 'grassland ranch,' and we happen to use a pair of 60-head cow herds and 45 mama goats to turn that grass into a marketable product," Ebel explains. "We view the grass as our primary product, and our main goal is continual improvement of that resource."

The ranch is divided into 21 main pastures selected for their forage type and geography. They range from 1.3 acres to more than 200 acres, and each is permanently fenced. Ten water points, fed by the local rural water system, are scattered throughout the pastures and are accessible through various combinations of gates.

"Depending upon grass conditions during the growing season, I'll cross-fence those pastures into smaller paddocks with temporary hot wire to better manage forage use," Ebel explains. "Anytime I can give my natives a break and put the pressure on my introduced species, I do."

That's particularly true later in the growing season when the natives are reproductive. "I want that seed back in the pastures so the cattle can trample it in. That way, the cattle are not only forage harvesters, but they become planters," he says.

MANAGEMENT PAYOFF

Ebel's management is paying off. He and his family enjoy a comfortable living on land that was once deemed "worn out." With the exception of a very few brief periods of ice and snow, Ebel has not fed hay to his herds for nearly 10 years. And, because of the judicious use of his natural grass resource and lack of expensive hay equipment, end-of-the-year accounting shows the Ebels can maintain a cow for far less than half the national average.

"My cost to keep a cow for a year is a big part of our financial stability," Ebel explains. "In 2014, with 100 cows, figuring property tax, insurance, mileage, machinery and feed, our cows cost us $325 to maintain. In 2017, that per-cow figure was $315 for 120 cows. To keep a mama goat, we spend $75 per year."

Figures from the national Livestock Marketing Information Center in 2016 peg the national average cost of keeping a cow at roughly $875.

The ranch averages a 90% weaned calf crop and a 170% kid crop from the goats. "So, yes, our operation is paying for itself," Ebel explains.

"Our meat goats help utilize forage not consumed by the cattle and maintain the height of lower branches of trees in the savannas. That allows grass to grow close to the tree line and provides fuel for prescribed burns, which reduces weed pressure near the trees," Ebel says. "We sell 70 goats a year for about $170 apiece."

Ebel explains by not haying, he realizes significant reductions in overall costs to his operation. "I don't have that big investment in hay equipment, and we run a minimum of machinery," he explains.

LEAN MACHINES

The ranch's machine shed houses a John Deere 4440 (which Ebel says is too big for the operation), an ATV and a UTV, an 11-foot shredder for cutting firebreaks, a pull-behind sprayer with a 42-foot working width and an ATV-towed cube feeder for distributing cottonseed cubes to cattle in the winter as they graze stockpiled standing forage in the pastures.

"Most of our work with the cattle is done from the utility vehicles or on foot," Ebel says. "That also helps us keep a close eye on the herds as well as the ever-changing grass conditions."

Ebel explains his rotation schedule is infinitely variable and based on:

-- Minimum grazing height of species being managed.

-- Adequate recovery period for forage species.

-- Cattle nutritional requirements.

-- Forage stockpile requirements.

-- Logistical constraints for moving livestock.

"The adage of 'take half and leave half' is a good guideline," he says. "Each day, you have to make a decision on how much of the 'solar panel' [leaf area] you want to remove. It all depends on the pasture's forage height and the life cycle of the species."

Early spring, Ebel grazes the natives hard. But, as drier, hotter weather sets in, he shifts the animals to the "introduced" pastures, giving the natives time to rest and reproduce. Once the growing season is over in November, the native pastures serve as a standing hay. That ground is grazed as necessary during the winter.

The introduced pastures are fertilized with 1.0 to 1.5 tons per acre of chicken litter every three to four years. Ebel says the nitrogen is gone in a year, but good phosphorus and potassium levels remain throughout the period. "The past two years, however, I've hit those pastures with 75 to 100 pounds of urea to give them a boost," he says. As his rotational-grazing practices continue to slowly improve both native and introduced pastures, Ebel sees his need for applied fertilizer declining.

THE RESTORATION

Ebel, who holds a biology degree, spent a year taking inventory of his initial land purchase then worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to implement a plan to restore the farmstead back to native pasture. "At that time, NRCS protocol stipulated we'd plow up the ground and prepare a seedbed before planting the native pasture mixture," Ebel explains. "From scouting the property, I knew there were small populations of unplowed natives remaining near bends in field drainage and around other obstacles. I wanted to save those remnants, because I believe local ecotypes just work better."

He flagged those areas to protect them and then plowed 300 acres for a textbook approach to restoration -- a broad-based planting of a mix of big and little bluestem, switchgrass and indiangrass.

The first year, Ebel cross-fenced 645 acres into pastures of various sizes and continued his brush removal. By 2005, the restoration was largely completed, and he stocked the ranch with 12 cows, a bull and 600 meat goats. As forage improved, he added nine cows a year until he reached the current 120-cow total. As brush and large weed infestations were pushed back, goat numbers were decreased to the present herd of 45.

Today, Ebel is stocking one animal unit (AU) per six acres in his intensive rotational-grazing management.

In 2012, the Ebels added another 360 acres of adjoining overgrazed pastures to the operation. But, they used rotational grazing, prescribed burns and winter "trample planting" to restore them instead of a broad-based planting.

"During winter feeding of supplemental cottonseed cubes, we'll flag a 50- x 100-foot area, and with a coffee can full of native grass seed -- on foot -- we'll hand-broadcast about 3/4 pound of that seed in the rectangle," he explains. "The process takes about 20 minutes."

HOOF PLANTING

Then, with the cube feeder, Ebel distributes cubes on the planting site one to four times during the winter, depending on soil moisture and litter cover. The hoof action provides a slight to moderate mixing of surface litter and seed, just like the buffalo did on the native prairies for hundreds of years.

"Each year, we'll plant eight to 10 sites like this across the pasture. Once they are established, they create seed-producing colonies that spread as grazing cattle move through them collecting seeds on their hair coat and processing seed through manure dispersal."

Similarly, Ebel manages his grazing to allow ryegrass and clovers in his introduced pastures to go to seed. Then, he grazes those acres aggressively to process that seed source through the cows. The combination of manure-mixed seed and hoof action from concentrated grazing has helped establish significant new stands of the cool-season grass and clover.

Ebel uses herbicides and insecticides with discretion. But, he isn't hesitant to make aggressive applications when he sees invasive species or insects threatening his grass. Most of his weed control, however, relies on a rotation of prescribed burns in February each year. Overall, he says herbicide use is decreasing as grassland establishment improves with rotational grazing.

"We burn 300 to 400 acres a year," Ebel says. "Some pastures are burned every year, and others may not see fire for three to four years depending upon the grass species and [need for] woody species control."

THE HERD

"I've worked to build a herd of moderate-framed, adequate-girth, Angus-based cows," Ebel explains. "I'm shooting for an efficient forage producer of 1,150 to 1,200 pounds that calves dependably without assistance."

Ebel runs one herd of 60 predominantly black cows using a Hereford bull and another 60 head with Hereford/Angus breeding for his "red" herd. Both herds calve around March 1, the calves averaging a bit less than 70 pounds. "We don't assist any of our cows and only a few of our heifers," Ebel says. "I'm aggressive on culling. If a cow is open, she'll quickly have another zip code."

Ebel is dismissive of daily gain.

"I don't worry a whole lot about that," he says. "My primary focus is on improving the forage, and the cattle performance pretty well follows how well I do that."

(VM/AG)