story by Levi Tibbs and Jaime Tankersley
In 1938 Walter and Katie Spenrath began ranching in the eastern Edwards Plateau. A short time later they sold the property. Little did they know, one day it would be back in the families' hands.
A.O. Bruns and a partner purchased the land from the Spenraths in 1947. A.O. handled the ranching aspect of the operation until his son, Dusty, bought out A.O.'s partner in 1985. Dusty took full control of the ranch in 1995.
The ranch is located about six miles south of Comfort, Texas. The ranch consists of 535 rugged acres, with an additional 375 acres of adjoining leased land.
Along the way, Dusty courted a lovely young lady and in 1969 he made Norma Spenrath his wife. Taking in the Hill Country views from their porch one day, Norma noticed the familiar initials of her grandparents - W.S and K.S. - engraved in the concrete steps. With the link to her grandparents not known until that day, they found that those etched initials solidified their family's ranching heritage.
Dusty jokes, "Norma only married me so she could get the ranch back in her family." His wife nods and smiles in agreement.
After 43 years of marriage, two children, and countless hours spent next to each other in the care of their piece of the Edwards Plateau, Dusty will have a hard time winning that case.
The exceptional stewardship carried out on the Bruns Ranch qualified it for the Conservation Stewardship Program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Beginning in 2010, Dusty and Norma entered into a contract. The most recent evidence of Dusty and Norma's sound stewardship was the honor of having the Bruns Ranch recognized as the 2012 Kendall County Outstanding Conservation Ranch, awarded through the Kendall Soil and Water Conservation District.
This honor did not come over night, and the Bruns family has spent the better part of their life reaching this conservation accomplishment.
Dusty graduated from Texas State University in San Marcos with a degree in agriculture, specializing in rangeland management.
"From high school to college and later to interaction with the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), I was taught how plants grow, the need for grazing management, and about healthy plant communities - textbook learning," Dusty notes.
In the early seventies, Dusty visited the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's Kerr Wildlife Management Area near Hunt, where he observed conservation on the ground.
"I was thoroughly impressed with their short duration grazing system for cattle and integration of prescribed burning into their management," Dusty says. "The resulting high-quality plant communities supported a first class agricultural operation, endangered species, and excellent whitetail deer quality - and without the need for supplemental wildlife feed. I wanted our place to be like that."
Hired by the USDA Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), he began his conservation career in 1966 as a surveyor's aid for the Watershed Division. However, nine years later he made a career change, accepting a position with the Department of Defense at the U.S. Army's 27,900-acre Camp Bullis Military Training Site near San Antonio, as their Environmental and Land Manager. Dusty introduced prescribed burning to Camp Bullis and after designing and overseeing brush sculpting and brush management techniques to enhance tactical training opportunities, he was invited to co-author a Planning and Design Guidance Document on Tactical Concealment Area Development. He retired in 2003.
Being the Example
Dusty's dad bought him a double-bit axe when he was fourteen years old, and a chainsaw when he was sixteen to control Ashe juniper on the ranch. Several chainsaws later, he is still after the persistent Texas Hill Country "pest." Dusty is a proponent of prescribed fire and considers it the most economical method to treat re-growth juniper. He incorporated a prescribed burning program on the ranch utilizing over 20 miles of strategically placed fire breaks consisting of realigned pasture roads, and bladed and natural breaks. Weather permitting; he tries to burn pastures every five years. Dusty writes his own burn plans which have been used as templates for training others in the area.
Norma exchanged a college education to begin a family. Despite not having a degree, she earned her position in the family's pioneering history from years of hands-on experience and being active in her community.
Both take opportunities to help organizations that strive for betterment of land and resources. Dusty has served as district director on the Kendall Soil and Water Conservation Board and as chairman. He has also served in numerous positions with the Hill Country Prescribed Burn Association (HCPBA), currently serving as secretary-treasurer and director representing Kendall County.
He works with the Cibolo Nature Center (CNC) in Boerne, which promotes conservation of natural resources through education and stewardship. He also helps teach seminars on land and wildlife management, prescribed burning along with assisting CNC with prescribed burns on their land. Norma volunteers her time with the Texas Master Naturalists.
Wildlife is an important resource on the ranch and Norma plays an active role in identifying and managing key wildlife habitat plants. Wildlife habitat for species such as white-tailed and axis deer, turkey, dove, songbirds, and the endangered golden-cheeked warbler is enhanced through selective brush management and managed to promote species diversity.
White-tailed and axis deer populations are managed by selective harvest to maintain deer quality and habitat. The Bruns' are conscious of not only livestock stocking rates, but also wildlife stocking rates.
Drought is an ongoing nemesis in Texas, and the Hill Country is no exception. The ranch is moderately stocked with cattle year round, and extra grass that is left is a valuable tool in Dusty's prescribed burns. Prescribed fires and prescribed grazing has produced an increase in the production and diversity of native grasses across the ranch.
Over the years, about eight miles of perimeter and cross fencing has been completed. The ranch practices rotational grazing. Cattle are rotated through pastures ranging in size from three to 300 acres. Cattle graze on pastures from two to 20 days, depending on the time of year and forage availability.
The Bruns Ranch has some of the most quintessential riparian areas in the Texas Hill Country, with 2,600 feet of fence being constructed to preserve and manage riparian vegetation and water quality along two permanent creeks. These riparian areas are typically void of livestock with flash grazing occurring under closely monitored conditions. Eroded areas of creek bank are now stabilized with switchgrass, eastern gamagrass, and an abundance of aquatic and native vegetation.
Brush management and prescribed grazing has also led to an increase in spring flow. The ranch has three natural springs that were modified for livestock and wildlife use. The area around one of the springs was clear-cut of both ashe juniper and hardwoods to increase spring flow. The results were astounding. During the intense drought of 2011, the springs never ceased to flow.
Taking the Initiative
In 2001, Dusty was recognized by the Texas Historical Commission for Archaeological Preservation Work at Camp Bullis. Protection of archaeological sites continues on the ranch. Numerous Native American occupation sites are present, along with what are believed to be late prehistoric gravesites. The Bruns protect all sites from human disturbance and erosion.
The Bruns' family recently opened its gates to over 85 local producers and agency officials where Dusty and Norma walked them through what they have spent most of their lives accomplishing. Even though they have not exactly found monetary riches in ranch life, the richness in their quality of life is a true inspiration they hope to keep in the hands of their family for many generations to come.