VERNON – A healthy agro-ecosystem is critical to productive, stable rangeland. Land managers trying to restore an ecosystem and productivity must understand it requires a different process of allocating resources under differing situations, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research ecologist.
Dr. Richard Teague, AgriLife Research rangeland ecology and management scientist in Vernon, is developing a database that can aid producers in calculating how different management techniques will provide the best and most sustainable resource and economic results.
In his study, Teague is measuring and documenting the effects of different range management strategies on critical natural resources. To improve their situation, he said, landowners must first understand what is necessary to make changes.
“We are studying how conservation award-winning ranch managers do it,” Teague said. “In the process, we are also finding that ranchers who have improved the condition of the range vegetation and soils have increased productivity and have been less impacted by the bad drought we are currently experiencing.”
The Texas section of the Society for Range Management recently presented the conservation ranch award to a rancher who uses a very simple four-pasture management strategy with a growing season rest every three to four years, Teague said. The rancher achieved good conservation, productivity and economic results despite the bad drought – an excellent example of successful use of planned, time-controlled grazing that every rancher would find very easy to manage.
“If you look at successful managers, the leading people exceed the average by a margin and they do that by the way they allocate resources, use different techniques and adapt as things change,” Teague said.
He said his studies, which are on the landscape level instead of the small plot level, are taking place on ranches with similar vegetation – most east of Wichita Falls. Ranches in three contiguous counties with award-winning management were selected.
The study is examining the impacts of changing key management elements and planning ahead to decrease the impact of different circumstances such as dry or wet seasons, wildfires and changing weather patterns. It is designed to answer questions such as: “How good is any management option ecologically, economically and socially?” and “Within what context is it most likely to be successful?”
Teague said his study aims to determine what combination of management choices yields superior results.
“We want to test the impact of different grazing management strategies at the scale of commercial ranches by studying impacts on neighboring ranches to check for consistency of response across multiple counties,” Teague said.
He said superior results in terms of range improvement, productivity and profitability also have been regularly obtained by ranchers who use many more paddocks per herd with shorter periods of grazing and who are adaptively changing recovery periods and other management elements as conditions change.
Teague said good managers are dealing with complexity and not being overwhelmed by it.
“I’ve developed five different sets of decision rules that result in five different levels of management complexity. We are trying to find the minimum number of key decisions that will result in the most satisfactory resource and economic results.
“We compare the results of these sets of decision rules with results achieved by ranchers who have made these different sets of decisions to make sure we are incorporating local knowledge and experience,” he said.
An important tool that has recently been refined is using aerial monitoring of ranch landscapes, Teague said. Landscape data have been available for 20-odd years via the NASA LANDSAT program, “so we can examine the impacts of different ranch management decisions retrospectively over whole ranch landscapes.
“You can’t just monitor management impacts on an ecosystem over a couple years. You need to go through at least two wet and two dry cycles before you can begin to understand what impacts that management really causes, and three would actually be better,” he said.
“These retrospective analyses will enable us to see how neighbors who manage differently were impacted during both dry and wet years relative to each other. This is particularly important so we can check what management decisions result over the years in a rancher being able to minimize the impacts of droughts while taking advantage of the good years when they happen.”
Teague said a prominent conservation rancher at a recent workshop was asked why his ranch was still operating so well in the drought.
“His reply was that he had been managing over the previous 25 years to make sure his forage was dominated by the most productive grasses and had the deepest roots possible,” Teague said.