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Rancher and NRCS Work Together to Survive Historic Drought Conditions

story by Randy Henry

Landowners and producers throughout the state of Texas never could have predicted the severe drought conditions this year that have impacted small and large operations alike. The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helped many of these ranchers and farmers survive the ongoing drought using technical and financial assistance, including successful conservation planning.

Stuart Fisher, a rancher in Ellis County, Texas, came to NRCS before the drought began to develop a conservation plan on his 481-acre, cow-calf operation and gain technical expertise toward building a successful cattle operation.

Fisher signed up for NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to utilize planned conservation treatments, including brush management, terracing and smoothing old structures, pasture and hay planting, seeded and sprigged species with weed control, fencing, and nutrient management.

Fisher gives credit to NRCS' technical assistance in getting his conservation plan off to a great start last spring prior to the tragic drought that hit Texas in the summer. Tom Clark, NRCS Soil Conservationist in Ellis County, assisted Fischer from the beginning while successfully working the conservation plan that was developed for Fisher's property.

"NRCS has helped me take a neglected piece of land and turn it into a productive ranch," Fisher said. "With the limited amount of ranch land available, we have to make each acre as productive and sustainable as possible. Tom provided excellent technical assistance from the very beginning, as well as being an informative source for seeding rates, fertilization, and sustainability."

The conservation plan that NRCS and Fisher had started brought good results using the best practices for clearing brush, laying out rotational grazing systems, selecting sustainable grasses, and successful weed control. As summer came upon Texas this year, drought conditions seemed to be more severe than anyone had predicted for 2011.

In fact, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in November, more than half of Texas remains in extreme to exceptional drought, while most of the remainder of the state is in severe drought. As this statistic hits home for ranchers, farmers, and producers in north-central Texas, NRCS strives to get the best technical assistance to ranchers like Fisher.

Moreover, Clark realized the hardships that can be brought upon a rancher from long-term drought while starting a successful conservation plan, and possibly impeding any results that were planned for Fisher's property last spring. Recently, Clark and Fisher met to discuss the technical assistance NRCS can provide on his land to survive the record-setting drought conditions in Ellis County.

"While Stuart has cleared many acres of mesquite and sustained the burn bans in place, it has left him with little grazing land options for his livestock and the forage needed for them," Clark said. "He has made several reductions in his stocking rate, as well as reducing his herd due to the drought this summer anyway. This has left a large portion of his grazing land unavailable for his livestock, so he has gone to flash grazing while being more creative in his cattle watering patterns."

Some of the hardships Fisher had to deal with are the same as many ranchers in Texas due to the drought, including problems with water quality and quantity, loss of livestock to sales, and seeding not producing grasses for forage.

"The helplessness of knowing that the only thing you can do is wait it out, and keep buying feed or leasing more land for grazing is hard to handle," Clark said. "Stuart had to sell more of this breeding stock, which reduced his herd even more, whereas the original plan was to nearly double the size of his herd as of last spring using NRCS programs and practices to clear the brush and develop the land for grazing."

One of the ideas that Clark and Fisher implemented was using cover crops to help reduce soil erosion, provide supplemental forage, monitor soil moisture management, and provide weed suppression. A combination of oats and hairy vetch was planted until the brush piles could be burned and leveled so seedbed prep can begin for planting the permanent grass.

"Stuart has chosen to improve nearly all the land he owns, and recently started the flash grazing the land in the EQIP contract, but only after it was determined it would not be harmful to the work we were doing," Clark said.

Thus far in 2011, the only grasses Fisher used for most of the growing season on his land were King Ranch Bluestem and a mixture of native grasses. He added NRCS has been a good source of technical guidance teaming up with him to improve his ranch and help the land for his cattle operation.

"With the help from NRCS, I feel like I can improve our grazing capacity enough to start showing a profit, so my hope is that the family ranching business will be carried on for generations to come," Fisher said. "I look forward to working on future projects with NRCS."

Clark acknowledged that NRCS' EQIP program, technical assistance, and land management practices have helped Fisher turn his property into a productive ranch while working a successful conservation plan.

"We will continue to work with Stuart to improve his grazing management, reapply the grass plantings, and provide technical assistance on weed control," Clark said. "To survive these drought conditions, it is vital to work together, so we can reschedule grass planting to allow some cover crops to grow which will help prevent soil erosion, conserve soil moisture, and provide additional forage for his remaining cattle."

Pre Drought Pasture Full Tank and Good Forage Post Drought Low Tank and Cover Crops

This photo shows the largest of the pastures planted last spring before the drought with a full stock pond and good forage on Stuart Fisher's 481-acre ranch in Ellis County, Texas. Fisher used NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to obtain brush management, terracing, pasture and hay planting, seeding with weed control, fencing, and nutrient management.

During the severe drought this past summer, the same spring pasture that showed a full stock pond and good forage for Fisher's cow-calf operation now has water quantity and quality problems, along with cover crops that were planted to prevent soil erosion, provide supplemental forage, and provide weed suppression.

New Grass Growth Pushing Brush

Stuart Fisher (left), owner of 481 acres of pasture land in Ellis County, Texas, shows Tom Clark (right) NRCS Soil Scientist in Waxahachie, new grass growth from the seed planting of King Ranch Bluestem and a mixture of native grasses. Fischer was able to turn his land into a productive ranch using the EQIP program and NRCS technical assistance to help select sustainable grasses, laying out a rotational grazing system, brush control, and advice on weed control.

Brush management was one of the most important land management practices used to clear 105 acres of mesquite so thick you could hardly walk through them, according to Fisher. In this photo, clearing the mesquite was vital on the pasture land for seeding even though brush piles could not be burned with current burn bans throughout the state of Texas.

Cover crops

With a brush pile in the background as a reminder of the burn bans that must be presently sustained, Fisher planted cover crops, including oats and hairy vetch on several hundred acres within his 481-acre ranch in Ellis County, Texas.