When Jack Grafa bought his ranch in 1958, he knew something would have to be done about the brush.
"I just didn't want to give up our land to a brush that didn't provide us anything," recalls Mr. Grafa, who ranches southeast of San Angelo, Texas. "We knew that it was not an option to do nothing. We had seen country where nothing had been done, and you couldn't even get through the pastures."
Weeds and brush can deplete a pasture's capacity, reduce forage quality, contribute to soil erosion and result in poor water-holding capacity. Improved pastures can improve daily gains, cow body condition, replacement-heifer maturity, conception rates, milk quality and weaning weights. The bottom line is that the more good grass you grow, the lower your cost of production.
In considering range improvement, there are usually two decisions to be made. First you must decide whether to invest in any range improvement practices. Then you must decide which practices to invest in.
The cost of brush control herbicides and machinery continues to escalate each year while profit margins decline. The increase in capital outlay for conventional brush management strategies has made economical brush control difficult.
"We have learned over the years that where most ranchers have made a mistake, is go out and spend $25 to $100 per acre on brush control with the presumption that it will take care of brush indefinitely," says Darrell Ueckert, professor of rangeland ecology and management at Texas A&M University Agriculture Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas. "To spend that kind of money and not follow up with maintenance brush control practices is a definite mistake. A lot of ranchers have the mind set that one treatment is all they are going to use and let the brush infestations thicken and mature again."
One reason ranchers have become soured on brush control, according to Dr. Ueckert, is that they spent large sums of money and the brush returned. The treatment is blamed for not working. But no treatment can be applied once to take care of brush forever. Soils are heavily infested with seeds that have accumulated year after year.
Often the first step in long-term brush control is to utilize all of the knowledge available relative to the biology and ecology of the plants. For example you can clear the brush, but there will still be seeds in the soil for years to come.
"We need to realize that every plant species has an Achilles' heel-a weak link in its life cycle," says Dr. Ueckert. "In brush species that weak link is usually in the establishment phase. We can kill a lot of plants when they are small but if we let them mature their resistance is higher."
Dr. Ueckert, along with extension range specialist Allan McGinty from the TAMU research center in San Angelo, Texas, have developed a program to educate ranchers about the principle of the weak link and provide an economical approach to brush control. Named "Brush Busters," the program is a concept developed and refined to provide recommendations for effective and inexpensive brush control.
"Too often ranchers wait and ignore brush until it becomes dense and mature, and they finally realize that it is affecting their forage, livestock production and net profit. They call a contractor and spend large sums of money on what I call the heavy artillery-airplanes and bulldozers-spending large amounts of capital controlling the brush," explains Dr. Ueckert. "Then they ignore it again until they realize that brush has returned worse then before, and they have to again do major brush removal. Well you can only do that so many times until you go bankrupt."
The Brush Busters program encourages ranchers to recognize the importance of preventative brush control.
"We tell producers to get after the brush while it is a seedling or sapling because those plants are lot easier to kill, a lot less expensive and we have a wider choice of methods to utilize to control the small brush," says Dr. Ueckert.
Brush Busters recommends select treatments that have been proven to be highly effective and inexpensive when compared to the traditional approaches. And land owners have begun to catch on to the idea that it makes sense to control brush while it is small rather than waiting until it is mature and dense.
"The first thing we did was kill all the big mesquite because we wanted to stop new seed production. We treated each individual tree by basal spraying near the ground," says Mr. Grafa. "It took us about three years to get around and kill all of the big ones and stop bean production on the mature trees."
Today Mr. Grafa's ranch has 3,000 acres divided between five pastures of which one is treated each year. Of course now regrowth is the only brush to control, which Mr. Grafa says is very little and simple to kill off using a four-wheeler equipped with a 33-gallon spray tank.
"We do not have one mesquite on that 3,000 acres unless it is less than one foot tall," says Mr. Grafa.
If a producer has less than 100 plants per acre, the density of brush is not greatly impairing forage production. Killing those 100 plants will not enable a producer to greatly increase stocking rates. However, Dr. Ueckert likens the Brush Busters concept to preventative health care. It is cheaper to take care of a problem before it gets serious.
"We recognize that these treatments are not going to increase their net revenue in the near term but in the long term they will keep their net revenue from decreasing because of brush invasions, reduced forage production and lower stocking rates for livestock," says Dr. Ueckert.
"The thing about brush is you either get it or it gets you because nature never sleeps," says Mr. Grafa.
As a result of his long term, individual plant eradication system, Mr. Grafa estimates that he can run at least 25 percent more animal units on any given piece of land compared to neighboring pastures. And in cases of neighbors with dense brush invading pastures, he gets much more than that.
Maintaining control of the brush on your ranch does cost money. But left unchecked, brush can run you out of business.
"We knew that it was not an option to do nothing," says Mr. Grafa. "So whatever money we could allot, we would spray. If we had $2,000 we could spend on chemical and labor, we would cover as much ground as $2,000 would do."
Increased use of brush control
Brush control among landowners has been increasing a great deal in recent years, according to Dr. Ueckert. Major increases in brush control efforts are being seen in western states for several reasons.
Older ranchers are retiring or passing away. Heirs are getting the land and want to do what is in the best interest of the environment to enable long-term sustainability.
Land is being sold off to owners with outside income that can be spent on improving the land. Also, gradual subdivision of land is causing ranches to get smaller and easier to manage.
The Brush Busters program is getting the information out, and more producers see the wisdom in preventative maintenance.
One of the most important reasons for increased interest in brush control is that many regions in the Southwest and Texas are facing water shortages, and brushy plants utilize a disproportionate amount of the precipitation throughout the regions.
"The most important part of making brush control economical is that once you get an infestation of mature plants under control don't ever let them get mature and dense again," advises Dr. Ueckert. "Keep after them while they are small."
If you are like most producers, cleaning your whole ranch of brush and weeds may appear impossible. But the fact is you don't have to. Start by clearing the horse trap or one small area. The hard part is just getting started.
"Then, when you clear the horse trap and it looks so good, it will motivate you to clear the next pasture," says Mr. Grafa. "Over time you can make a difference."
An integrated management approach to brush control
The term brush management is often more appropriate than brush control because management recognizes the potential value of some quantity of woody plants in range management for capturing moisture in the form of snow or for wildlife habitat. While increasing livestock production is usually a high priority in range management, it should not be done at the expense of other products that might yield economic returns.
That is the basis behind a strategic plan for long-range brush management developed by extension specialists at Texas A&M University, dubbed the Integrated Brush Management System (IBMS). To assist in establishing a plan of action, specialists at TAMU have outlined steps to determine your own brush management strategy.
* Set objectives The first step is to identify the general objectives of ranch management.
* Take inventory of what you have Managers should have an accurate picture of the brush species composition and distribution for each range site, the current and potential level of forage production, the characteristics of the land, wildlife species present and the domestic animals that will use the land.
* Identify possible management strategies Based on the growth habits and reproduction of brush species and on how brush and forages respond, consider which of the available management strategies will achieve the desired results.
* Determine an acceptable rate of return on your investment Then budget funds accordingly over a period of time. Brush management must be translated from biological into economic terms in order to establish a basis for comparing management strategies. This is done by projecting how programs will change the carrying capacity of the range over a given period. It also is important to consider how much it will cost you in the long run to do nothing. Be sure to take into consideration positive factors such as improved conception rates and higher weaning weights as a result of improved forage quality. Managers should determine a discount rate that considers opportunities for alternative investments. Range improvements must be considered as an alternative to other investments such as equipment, seedstock, or savings bonds.
* Use feedback and experience to improve the system Upon implementing your strategy, record information about the actual results over time and use it to improve the results of future brush control strategies.
When Jack Grafa bought his ranch in 1958, he knew something would have to be done about the brush.