Nurturing Your Weeds vs Planting a Food Plot: Which offers more bang for the Buck?
My neighbors, Hal and Maggie Livings, are dedicated naturalists with keen observation skills. They explained to me that during their 14 years in Loyal Valley, only four spring times were truly memorable for having stupendous, over-the-top wildflower displays. Recent examples of this phenomenon occurred in 2010 and 2012 when wet winters combined with other conditions to transform every field into outrageous sweeps of colors.
But not this year. No rain fell between mid-October 2012 and January 2013 – the critical time when wildflowers germinate and begin their vegetative phase. Fall 2012 was marked by record warm temperatures, yet by February the weather turned strangely cold all the way through May. Trees were very slow to leaf out, and the first leaves on the mesquite trees were burned back at least once by frost. As June draws near, we are offered some consolation for the weird weather by an extended bloom of late spring wildflowers .
The late and spotty wildflower show of spring 2013 was another reason I was dismayed when I noticed that my neighbor across the creek had plowed under what had once been a dense and spectacular wildflower meadow to plant a food plot for deer. Whether it was the urge to try out a new tractor, or to check off the "plant food plot" box in the 1-D-1 Wildlife Management Plan submitted to the county chief tax appraiser, my neighbor put a lot of time and effort into clearing a little over half an acre and sowing twice.
I understand how this happens. People may not know one weed from another, but they understand the idea of farming. You clear a field, you plant some seed, and you wait for it to grow. There is a beginning and an end. But what are the real outcomes you can expect on if you go to all this trouble?
Disking up rugged rangeland to create a food plot is a risky proposition in our area. Aside from unreliable rainfall, the deer and hog populations are so high that you really need expensive high fencing to give the plants a chance to come out of the ground and form a dense cover. Unless you were planting sunflowers for dove year after year, it's hard to understand how fencing an area would be worth it.
Because our winter rains never arrived, the first crop my neighbor planted was pretty much a bust. What did grow was quickly shaved down by eager herds of deer. Now he's planted what looks like Haygrazer or sorghum and some kind of pea, and they are also being cropped down before the third set of leaves have developed. I expect that by summer most of the field will be bare, except for the encroaching colonies of invasive plants like Malta star thistle and KR bluestem. When heavy rain comes, that loose dirt could wash into the creek, and the habitat will become even more impoverished.
Before being plowed, the field previously hosted a wide variety of forbs (broad leaf herbaceous plants) that according to wildlife biologists, are the preferred early season browse by deer, as well as benefiting other wildlife like quail, turkey, and dove. In early May I counted over 20 species that were listed in the publication A Checklist: Vegetation of the Kerr Wildlife Management Area and Its Preference by White-tailed Deer (available at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us . Go to the publications link and paste the title in the search box). This list included gaillardia, bluebonnets, Texas thistle, lazy daisy, yellow bitterweed, Drummond skullcap, pincushion daisy, green milkweed, rain lily, Wright coreopsis, and Drummond phlox. Less showy but still valuable forage plants like western ragweed, croton or dove weed, noseburn, silver leaf night shade, cat briar and woody plants are also surrounding the field mixed in with decent grasses that ofeered cover and nesting material were also present. These included Lindheimer muhly grass, short-spike windmill grass, and sideoats grama, Texas cotton top and white tridens. But now all that diversity – a veritable Luby's cafeteria of foodstuffs - for deer and birds alike has been plowed under.
Instead of going to the expense of plowing, seed, fertilizer, fencing, etc. what if landowners instead devoted the same time and resources to improving the native meadow that could then be expected to provide year-round forage and habitat for the game he is trying to attract? First, it would mean taking the time to learn the top dozen or two plants that deer and other wildlife rely on, and to determine they exist on your property. This challenge is similar to taking the time to learn the names of birds, or how to match footprints and scat to the appropriate varmint.
There are many useful field guides out there to help the beginner, including:
- Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country by Marshall Enquist – a classic
- Texas Range Plants by Stephan L. Hatch and Jennifer Pluhar
- Brush and Weeds of Texas Rangeland Texas Agri-Life Publication No. B-6208
My neighbor with the food plot belongs to a Wildlife Management Association. According to the TPWD website, the intention of these associations is to "improve the wildlife resources of your land by cooperating with neighbors to enhance habitat values at a larger landscape level". I take this to mean something more than just installing high fences and getting a break on hunting license fees. Rather it's to knit together an impaired or fragmented habitat, to share information on methods and observations, and maybe even share equipment and other tactics to make conservation projects more cost effective.
What if these Wildlife Management Associations held informal field days to "provide a forum for ecosystem management education that in time will affect the general "health" of the system, including better water management", as described in the TPWD's own publication on WMAs? What if a certain number of "continuing education credits" were required to maintain the status of an association? Would that make it easier for interested sportsmen to learn how to "read the land" at a deeper level, to assess it's health and diversity, and maybe even learn the names of a few of the "weeds" that wildlife seeks out and depend on? Maybe local county government experts could lead the "pasture walks", or help recruit someone? Could landowners discover that they have an abundance of "food plot crops" already there that just need a little help such as selective brush management ? (Note: I realize that it's not always this simple. If the range is really depleted, and you plant native forbs like black eyed Susan, purple prairie clover, Illinois bundleflower, partridge pea and others you would have to protect them with fencing to get them established too, if deer population was heavy in your area. That's a worse-case scenario.)
As Calvin Richardson wrote in "Brush Management Effects on Deer Habitat" (you can download this publication from the Texas Agri-life bookstore). "A vast thicket of dense white brush is of little value to deer if forbs and browse species are unavailable. Diversity and interspersion of cover and forage species are essential components of deer habitat. Treatments that benefit deer most are the ones that stimulate an increase in forb production during the growing season, while maintaining a diversity of browse when forbs are not available."
A food plot, if it's successful, only lasts for a season. But a well-managed habitat provides benefits year-round for animals, water conservation, and soil retention. As hunting season approaches, couldn't supplemental feeding be reliably provided by well positioned feeders? I know the hogs and raccoons would appreciate it!
It seems to me that people who receive discounts on licenses as well as folks asking for reduced valuation of property taxes in return for "wildlife management plan" should have some skin in the game by making a commitment to become better land stewards using curiosity, education, and respect for the natural processes that affect us all - critters and humans alike.
Revisiting Burn Pile Recovery Results
In an earlier post, I reported how sowing native grass and wildflower seed in burn pile sites hastens their recovery and can create "seed islands" that may help impaired grasslands . (see "Best Method for Recovery of Burn Pile Sites 2012 archive). The idea for this was inspired by a study conducted by the Browning Ranch (www.clbrowningranch.org).
The wet winter of 2010 provided good conditions for burning many of the huge remnant piles of mesquite and other brush left behind by the previous owner. Following the Browning Ranch protocol, we immediately sowed native grasses in the bare areas, and that spring it was easy to recognize where the piles had been because the new grass stood out like a lush chia pet in the midst of fading winter forbs (in this case, mostly pepper grass and plantain grass).
As expected, the first grass to appear was green sprangletop. We had been advised that at least 10% of every grass mix should include this amount of this species (Leptochloa dubia), because it is a reliable nurse grass that can quickly cover bare ground and the organic material it leaves behind makes a more hospitable seedbed for slower-growing grasses like little bluestem.
The green sprangletop quickly set seed early in the spring of 2011, but with the onset of the drought of 2011, the initial clumps dried out and died. By late summer of that year, it was hard to tell that anything at all had been planted. Still, I told myself, the grass had set seed. Maybe it will be enough to regenerate.
Regular, if not abundant rains in 2012 provided just the right conditions for native grass germination throughout our property ( see "LIP Project Fall 2012 update), on a variety of soils. We began to notice a lot of early succession "first responders" like Texas grama (Bouteloua rigidiseta var. rigidiseta), various three awns, etc. Even more exciting, the same species we had planted, including green sprangletop, Southwest plains bristlegrass ( Setaria scheelei) and side oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula var. curtipendula) started showing up in places where we had never seen it before. Did they originate from plants we had sown that first year in the burn piles, or had it been there all along, though we hadn't seen many decent populations of these plants? How long does it take for seed to migrate out of these seed islands if conditions are right? More to the point, why don't we know the answer to this question?
I've attended various workshops recently where speakers asserted "The grass seed is in the ground and it will stay good for 50 years, just waiting for the right time to grow if you take the (grazing) pressure off". Some experts even extended this purported time period to 100 years. How do they know this? What if the way the land was managed meant that all the desirable perennial grasses had been strip-mined decades before, leaving next to none of the parent plants behind?
On our property, it's true that some stands of little bluestem and other desirable grasses could still be found, even in 2011, growing among clumps of cactus or in the cracks of granite boulders. In the summer, the poor heifers wandering the open range have faces full of cactus thorns as a result of their desperate foraging for the only remaining morsels of grass. But until September of 2012, nowhere did we have decent stands of the kinds of grasses we were looking for.
By early spring 2013, those first burn pile sites were thin and barren, home more to wildflowers like scrambled eggs, golden groundsel, and cow pen daisy than the grasses in the original seed mix. Compared to the surrounding area, the sites seemed to have a "halo" effect: ringed by grasses, but empty in the middle. Why is this?
Other burn pile sites we sowed in another area in spring of 2013 seemed to hold up better. We used a different seed mix in response to different soils, and the Southwest Plains bristlegrass and green sprangletop were still covering most of the area. They also had set seed last year, so at least we have that. Maybe someone in 50 or 100 years will be glad we took the trouble to sow it.
Creekside Conservation Program: Summary
Fred Reyna, our local NRCS agent came out to evaluate our week-long effort of removing prickly pear and other brush, followed by range seeding on the 16 acres approved by the LCRA's Creekside Conservation Program grant (see previous posts). We knew we wouldn't get reimbursed for the entire area, because we ran out of time and money before every acre was completely cleaned of cactus and other brush. We had hoped, however, to get compensation for at least ten acres, because we believed we had done a good job of balancing the practical challenge of extensive brush removal, while also following the stated goals of the Creekside Conservation Program, which included "Reducing soil erosion, sedimentation of streams, and lessening degradation of water quality and aquatic habitat."
It turns out that the objectives of the program are not seamlessly connected to standardized requirements for compensation. We misunderstood Fred's explanation that in order for an acre to be considered "cleared" (and thus eligible for 50% cost-sharing), it must have " less than canopy of number of plants per acre. For prickly pear that is 50 plants per acre." The only realistic way to meet these criteria for more than a few acres is by bulldozing. Note I didn't say "cost effective", because in my opinion, scraping the land of all vegetation sets up a whole other set of issues for recovery that can be expensive in a number of ways. No credit is given for following clearing by sowing native grass seed (we spent almost $1,000 on seed), nor did it include removing other "brush", especially in wooded areas where persimmon and white brush might be thicker than cactus. In the end, we were only compensated for five of the 16 acres.
In hindsight, we should have asked more questions. Assuming the proposal requirements were similar for TPWD's Landowner Incentive Program, I sent Fred an outline of our proposed strategy for tackling this project for his review. But I failed to realize that I needed to make sure those intentions were transferred by Fred to the Excel spreadsheet that the NRCS uses as the contractual "management plan". In our experience, it seemed the way the program is designed leaves little leeway for consideration of site-specific conditions or hybrid methodologies that may favor outcomes more closely related to the goals of the program. These and other misguided assumptions led us to set unrealistic goals and expectations for our partnership project.
While it would have been nice to receive more reimbursement for the expenses and effort we exerted on our project, in the end Jack and I still wouldn't have chosen to bulldoze the whole area. We believe that if the taxpayer is chipping in to fund these cost-sharing programs, they should expect to receive some benefit, no matter how distant or miniscule. On our little piece of Llano County, we wanted to improve the watershed of Marschall Creek, to set in motion those changes that could increase the cover of native grasses, and to do everything we can to help our land recover and to become as resilient as possible for humans and wildlife alike, especially in the context of erratic and drying weather patterns. Finally, we hope to offer what we learned to others who may be tackling the same problems.
Aside from the monetary support, we'd hoped to get guidance on certain questions like:
- Have any other nearby landowners successfully replaced dense prickly pear with native grasses? If so, how long did it take and what grasses recovered most?
- Is it better to remove 100% of prickly pear in a smaller area that could then be densely over-seeded with grasses, or can you remove 50%, sow grasses in smaller areas, but still be able to have sufficient fuel load to control the cactus in a reasonable amount of time?
- What is the recovery rate of bulldozed areas that are un-seeded vs. those that have been accompanied by some over-seeding? In other words, what is the cost-benefit to both methods? Is there some ideal ratio of annual vs. perennial grasses that need to be on site first before making the decision to sow or not?
- What are effective ways to dispose of cactus if it has been pushed into huge piles?
- How soon, depending on the weather, can you burn newly seeded rangeland? Do you need to wait a minimum of 5-7 years in order to allow the slow-growing perennials to become established? Will premature burning destroy too much organic matter on the soil surface, along with seeds that are needed to continue to colonize bare areas until perennials have a chance to get a toehold?
There is some discussion going on as to whether these cost-sharing programs, funded by the Federal Government, will continue, because the administering state agencies have a hard time demonstrating how the allocated money has actually made a difference over time. It's sad that in these times of our serious water shortages, we may be losing some financial incentive programs that could help landowners to conduct conservation work on a larger scale than they may have been able to do on their own. But a partnership implies a relationship that is more than signing a standardized contract and taking the money. Both parties have to invest in the outcome. I think partnership programs could be improved by adjusting the process to include the following:
- Potential private partners are encouraged to attend specific (not just boiler-plate general topics) agency-led workshops designed to help them draft their management plan and goals. Agents assist by providing resources and advice, and by editing the proposal initiated by the landowner. Landowners who invest in learning more about how to go about their project will receive "favorable review points" that will help them achieve approval of the grant. In other words, the responsibility of writing the grant application should not be left to the agent alone, leaving the landowner nothing to add but her signature.
- Land improvement strategies and management plans should comply with the stated goals of the program. In other words, getting money to bulldoze an area only to put livestock on it before it's recovered would not be a compensated partner activity, because without follow up, it may solve an immediate "brush problem", but could lead to soil erosion and aggressive re-growth.
- Reimbursement should be provided over a three-year period, with the heftiest payment the first year, followed by lesser payments over the last two years. Site visits by agents together with short annual reports of observations provided by the landowner (which could also be used as part of the annual report to the county tax assessor for Wildlife Valuation) would help insure that the management plan is followed. Course corrections and adjustments for weather patterns would be taken into consideration. Information on results could then be better shared.
We won't know for a number of years if our efforts to remove dense prickly pear and white brush followed by sowing of native grass seeds will be successful. It all depends on whether we get rainfall before the seed loses its viability – two factors we have no control over. Then there is the question of how quickly the prickly pear will reappear in the cleared areas, as it has the advantage of propagating from seeds, running roots, and rooting pads (often helped by feral hog rampages). Despite our disappointment, having this grant got us in gear to tackle a bigger area, and gave us the opportunity to gain some intimate knowledge of our place. And that can't help but be a good thing for us, and for Mother Nature.