Failure can be a pretty good teacher sometimes. David Crow says when he failed to make one kind of grazing system work on his Texas ranch, it led him to another. That approach became a highly productive, sustainable operation across 4,200 acres in Goliad County, known as Parks Ranch.
Crow, a first-generation rancher, bought the ranch in 2000. At that time, it was divided into two pastures. One contained a Savory Grazing system, developed using grazing guru Allan Savory's classic wagon-wheel design. It's an intensive rotational program with pie-shaped paddocks used worldwide.
"We tried to operate it, but we couldn't make it work," Crow explains. "There must have been 20 miles of temporary electric fence. We have a lot of wildlife, and the deer and wild hogs kept flipping the fence and shorting it out."
Add to that the challenge of only one water source, located in the middle of the setup. From there, cattle would only graze out so far, leaving large parts of paddocks ungrazed.
MORE PADDOCKS, TRADITIONAL WIRE
Looking for options, Crow sat down with technicians at his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. They drew plans for a simple, 10-paddock system covering the whole four-mile by two-mile ranch.
Each paddock was about 400 acres in size, fenced-in traditional barbed wire and had a lane running down the middle to working pens. Two herds, one fall-calving and one spring-calving, rotate through the paddocks with little effort or stress on cattle or people.
"It is about as easy and simple as you can get," says Matt Crow, David's son and ranch partner. "The cattle get to know the siren and cake buggy pretty fast. We go back through on horseback and clean out the stragglers."
David adds: "We can gather a herd from anywhere on the ranch and have them in the pens in an hour or hour and a half."
Even better, native grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem, yellow Indiangrass and Alamo switchgrass are flourishing. "The rotation method has helped us avoid taking drastic measures during droughty times. It is like we're banking grass," David says.
Unlike the Savory system that came with the ranch, David says in this setup, cattle graze all forage in the paddocks. They manage grazing with water distribution. To make it work, they put in some 20 miles of fence, 15 miles of water lines and 20 troughs.
"The two different herds are grazing on two different pastures at any given time," Matt explains. "By doing that, it allows us to rest eight pastures. That gives our grass a chance to recover. We feel the total time rested is more important than the total time grazed." It's often 3 to 3 1/2 months before cattle rotate back to a grazed paddock.
STOCKING RATES AND BRUSH CONTROL
Even with increased forage productivity, the Crows stock cautiously. One animal unit to 17 or 18 acres is the norm for ranches in this coastal prairie region. The Crows stock higher, at around one animal unit to 14 acres.
"We could probably push it to one to eight if we wanted," David says. But, while average rainfall is 32 to 34 inches, it often falls short of that.
The Crows give a lot of the credit for their productivity to the rotational-grazing system but stress that brush control is another big key to the ranch's success. When the senior Crow bought the ranch, it had been leased out for grazing and hunting for 27 years.
"It hadn't been abused, but it hadn't really been managed either," he says, adding that brush had completely taken over in places. Today, a fair amount of the ranch budget goes to brush control.
David says the surefire control method, an application of Remedy herbicide and diesel fuel, is one of the more costly ones. But, diesel is too expensive to pour on the ground. After a February 2022 wildfire burned 1,500 acres, mesquite exploded. That's when the Crows hired a crew to foliar-spray a mix of 1% Sendero with MSM 60 and a surfactant Inergy.
"They sprayed it so fast, they really got after it. It cheapened the process and knocked the brush back tremendously," David says.
Brett Huegele works with the Crows on forage management and brush control. "There is no silver bullet," Huegele says. "It needs to be a combination of mechanical and chemical control, prescribed burning and proper grazing management."
That's OK with David, who says he likes the mechanical method of control because of what he calls the "instant gratification" of watching a skid steer or a bulldozer take out invasive plants.
MORE WILDLIFE DIVERSITY
The increase in high-quality native forages that provide grazing for the cattle also help feed white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, and serve as quail nesting and brood habitat.
The ranchers' dual focus on cattle productivity and wildlife habitat resulted in cost-share agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NRCS, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and The Nature Conservancy.
"This is a great example of how private ownership can work with public entities," David explains. "I went into this thing very cautiously, but it has worked very well. Everybody had the same goals."
Their efforts also made Parks Ranch a National Cattlemen's Beef Association regional winner through its Environmental Stewardship Award Program. David appreciates the accolades, but he says for him, the real measures of success are the ranch's improved productivity and sustainability.
"This ranch is a great cattle ranch," he stresses. "It makes perfect sense to run cattle here. This is what this land was made for. It is not going to be a better golf course. It is not going to be a better shopping center. I hope Parks Ranch stays intact as a working ranch for generations to come."
Matt adds, "My Dad and I are always striving to make the land better. It's not only our job, it's our passion. We're doing our best to take care of this land for the next generation."
(c) Copyright 2024 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.