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Grazing Cattle: Deep in the Heart of Texas

By Donnie Lunsford, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist - Zone 2 ♦ May 2020

The Johnson Ranch in McCulloch County, operated by the Johnson family, has been working with NRCS to improve their rangeland health.

Read more in the Grazing Cattle: Deep in the Heart of Texas on the Johnson Ranch ArcGIS Story map or in the text-only version below.

Husband and wife stand in a field of grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Find high-resolution photos of the Johnson Ranch.

Johnson Ranch History

Brady is commonly referred to as "The Heart of Texas" since it is the closest city to the center of the state. The Brady area has been, and continues to be, a large producer of agricultural products due to its rural landscapes.

Joe and Mackye Johnson of the Johnson Ranch in McCulloch County have continued their family tradition of ranching and farming. Joe’s grandfather moved to Texas on a cattle drive and settled on the present-day ranch in 1899 after settling down to start a family.

“Ranching heritage is in your blood and you have to treat the land correctly if you are going to keep it for generations to come,” said Joe. “I think my father would be proud to know that the ranch has been restored to grass and that it will be ready to be passed down to my grandchildren, making it five generations of his original ranch still intact with land actually added to it.”

The Johnsons were recognized by the Family Land Heritage Program of the Texas Department of Agriculture for having homesteaded and worked on the ranch consistently for more than 100 years. Johnson feels ranching heritage is important because he fought to keep ownership during severe droughts, high interest rates and difficult times.

“When I was trying to raise a family, I had to work around local ranches to make ends meet, but at the end of the day I still had to do all of the things around my ranch,” explained Joe .”Those were long days and short nights, but now I can look at my ranch and see my successes that paid off while struggling. It was worth it.”

Wisdom and restoration

Joe said ranching can be a never-ending job, especially when it is a family legacy. A farmer or rancher will do what they must do to make ends meet, make sure taxes and bills are paid before drawing a salary. Joe said life can be tough when you are struggling with drought and other obstacles. He said sometimes you must go through a life change to find your way.

“I was just a drunk cowboy for 30 years when I found Jesus and became born again which truly allowed me to find wisdom and my path to be a true steward of the land,” he expounded.

With a new-found life, the Johnsons knew they wanted to restore the land to grassland while growing quality cattle. He uses the philosophy of managing grass through a rotational grazing system, allowing every pasture to get at least 90 days of rest before returning to the pasture.

Part of the restoration process was removing brush and improving infrastructure to facilitate a proper grazing system.

“In 1977, I first worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Great Plains program, removing brush and reseeding the land to grass,” said Joe. “In the mid-1990s, I was able to develop infrastructure by using their Environmental Quality Incentives Program to remove brush, reseed pastures and install cross fences so I could properly rotate my cattle and develop water sources in every pasture.”

Through technical assistance, NRCS assists agricultural producers in developing conservation plans, giving them a roadmap to keep ranches and farms sustainable. Through Farm Bill programs, such as EQIP, financial assistance is also available to assist with the cost of conservation implementation to address resource concerns.

“I couldn’t have done everything I did without the financial assistance of the NRCS which has been the best tool to help the land that we have ever had to restore the land.” Joe added, “We don’t save this land by keeping it covered with a healthy stand of grass, it will blow our soil away, which can’t be replaced in two lifetimes, letting our legacy blow away in the wind.”

Grazing for wildlife

While grazing and growing hay is a large source of income, wildlife is highly sought after through hunting and brings in a high revenue stream. The Johnsons have participated in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP) for more than 20 years. Their deer program is a low-fence operation with year-round protein feeders. Protein supplementation helps to assist nutrient requirements in effort to keep deer healthy, especially in the spring and early summer when higher protein allows larger antler growth.  The MLDP plan includes recommendations on harvest rates by weight, sex and antler score. 

“My philosophy is to keep the deer happy through proper management of their habitat and population through multiple survey methods that are given by their wildlife biologist,” Joe said. “We only allow archery hunting of the white-tailed deer, axis deer and hogs.”

For Joe, and many land managers though the United States, invasive species such as feral hogs and axis deer can be problematic and must be included in a management strategy. Feral hogs can destroy land while axis deer, left unmanaged, can over graze areas.

“I enjoy more than just the big wildlife like the deer and turkey,” said Mackye. “I like the butterflies, birds, and pollinators that enjoy our wildflowers and other plants that keep the ranch diverse,”

Joe said ranchers like himself continue to learn about the errors in the way they ranched in the past and have found ways to be successful.

“We wasted so much time years ago when we would spend more time drenching our sheep for worms in the spring and summer putting them back in the same pasture keeping the pest cycle going,” Joe said. “After learning the correct way to manage my land, my grazing has changed because I will always be understocked no matter how much it is raining because overgrazing can take years to get your land back to a healthy rangeland again.”

A lifetime of learning

Joe has worn many hats throughout the years, including county commissioner. For the past 21 years, he has been a director for the McCulloch Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) where he represents his fellow agricultural producers and land managers. 

“Over the years, I learned many things from getting it done right but I learn much more from doing it wrong, so we now are righting our wrongs which is how most of us learn anyhow,” explained Johnson. “I wish I had spent more time preparing my seedbed and had more diversity in my grass seed mixes to really restore our lands back to the grasslands of the 1700s.”

“The best advice I can give is the old saying of ’bloom where you are planted’ by seeking out people like the NRCS, AgriLife Extension, or ranchers in your area that know what will work for your area. Because what works 200 miles away might not work on your ranch,” he added.