West Texas was blessed with good rains ahead of the HMI and Dixon Water Foundation’s (DWF) workshop titled “Turning Desert Into Grassland,” held on September 20-21, 2022—making the results of DWF’s efforts to regenerate grasslands on the Mimms Ranch outside of Marfa, Texas clearly evident on the range.
DWF’s mission is to show how Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) can be used as an effective tool to increase profitability, reduce costs and regenerate land in most regions of Texas. Their Mimms Ranch eloquently shows how planned grazing versus set stocking/ continuously grazed (CG) improves soil cover, plant and animal species diversity and increases carrying capacity.
Part of the workshop covered the implications of these different management approaches. Due to the unpredictable rainfall in the Chihuahuan desert region, livestock carrying capacity must fluctuate to match the vegetation growth. To ensure that the trial of HPG versus CG yields meaningful results, Dixon keeps the carrying capacity the same across the two different management areas.
The visual results provide a stark contrast in soil and vegetation cover. The CG land has much more bare ground, than the HPG equivalent. On the CG areas plant diversity is much less diverse than with HPG. There is also more evidence of both over grazing and over-rest or decadent plants, dead or dying from non-use.
Research conducted by students from Sul Ross State University show that animals and birds prefer the HPG areas to the CG areas, too. Pronghorn antelope collared and tracked spend more time on the HPG areas. Bird surveys show similar results.
The workshop set out to help ranchers and land managers work with the 3 variables that need to be balanced to run a profitable business with improving soil life and more diversity over the long term. Wayne Knight, Executive Director of HMI and a presenter at the workshop, explained it as a balance between keeping livestock in productive condition while pushing forage utilization to accelerate nutrient cycling while effectively managing forage inventory in case of prolonged drought. A chunk of the workshop delved into the importance of livestock well adapted to the local environment in which they are expected to thrive at low cost, living predominantly off the forage available to them on land with healthy ecosystem processes.
The dilemma, Wayne explained, is that to improve soil life and water infiltration, grasses and forbs need to be grazed at density to feed the soil microbes that build soil structure, which speeds up water infiltration. Conversely, grazing too much will lead to forage shortages and severe destocking or poor animal performance during prolonged droughts. “It’s like walking a tight rope with these 3 variables,” says Wayne.
Casey Wade, VP of Grazing Operations at DWF, explained how he and his team evaluate available forage, and then portion it out over their prolonged dormant season grazing plan. The forage assessment is to help determine how much forage they have for the animals over the period they have chosen as a safe bet for more growth – about 18 months.
Casey explained how he and his team try to move the HPG herd daily to get the density as high as possible and provide the herd with constant selection of uncontaminated / fouled forage.
Since there is so much uncertainty in rainfall, growth rates and markets, monitoring is an essential component of effective management. Philip Boyd, Dixon’s VP of Research and Communication, explained how the organization has 2 parts to its monitoring efforts. The most crucial component for management decisions is lead-indicator monitoring—indicators that will help the cattle management team make informed decisions about what they need to do next to optimize animal performance and profitability and simultaneously improve ecosystem function for future forage production and improved ecosystem function.
The second pillar is to show the scientific evidence that the collective decisions are achieving the organization’s mission—improved soil health, improved diversity, wildlife numbers and diversity.
Wayne then discussed the importance of understanding the implication of application of 3 tools on ecosystem function in any environment:
- Animal Density (the concentration of animals and how this impacts positively or negatively the environment),
- Plant Recovery time (how much time following grazing, either light or heavy, does it take for plants to recover)
- Depth of Graze – what effect does the proportion of the grazable material utilized and/or trampled by the herd have on recovery time and on future production potential.
This trade-off has significant implications that are not linear. Non-selective grazing required that most of all plants present are grazed. This has implications for animal condition and risk of running out of forage. Both variables must be effectively managed for long-term successes—increasing ecosystem health and plant diversity and yield and profitability. Risk of running out of forage is much more significant in the Chihuahuan desert than for ranches with higher consistent rainfall. However, the forage in west Texas retains its nutritional value well over time.
To determine appropriate use of the tools of grazing, animal impact, and rest, Wayne explained how Graeme Hand’s Safe-To-Fail Trials can be used to learn the intersection of these variables at low cost and low risk to animal performance or land degradation. Casey and his team then demonstrated how to set up and execute the first phase of the trail—the density component. Following the ultra-high-density trial, it is essential to watch the trial area to observe the length of time it takes for the grasses to recover for optimal re-grazing. The next phase is to leave the trial area to see when the grass is overrested—when its nutritional value has fallen into an undesirable amount of rest and or is creating less digestible conditions in the plant.
Each of these observation points are very important considerations when putting together a grazing plan. Wayne reminded the audience that these variables would change as the interaction, repeat performance, and rainfall all vary. Observation of actual responses to management tools is critical to success because the complexity of the interactions means that the responses are not the same each time they are applied. Building in simple, regular, yet informative, lead indicator monitoring is crucial to achieving desired results.
William Jewett, NRCS consultant, did a great job of showing the physical and species differences between the sites that were visited in the HPG and CG sites. Sites were selected to show similar soil type, aspect, slope and history to allow for realistic comparison of management tools.
28 workshop participants, who manage 142,935 acres, registered for the workshop. 60% of attendees were under the age of 45 years. Evaluations showed that all participants were satisfied with the workshop and noted that they appreciated how open and accessible the information was and how there were so many really knowledgeable presenters. One participant wrote:
|“It was a great deeper drive into the how and why of regenerative grazing. I’m so grateful a workshop was done in this area where it is “harder” to make this process work.”
Our thanks to all those who helped make this event possible, particularly the staff at the Mimms Ranch and the Dixon Water Foundation for their sponsorship of this event.