8-11-19 For years now, range scientists have insisted, and proved to most everyone's satisfaction, that controlled burning of West Texas pasture land has many beneficial effects. Someone once said that the better (climax) grasses have "fire" in their DNA. Before the arrival of the first livestockmen in the 1880s, wild fires were common. As the rangeland began to be fenced-up, fires were considered to be an enemy and were extinguished as quickly as possible.
Did the lack of fire contribute to the encroachment of all the brush that is to be found in our area? Whitetail deer thrive in our current environment. Over the past fifty years, livestock production has declined while the recreational use of land has increased sharply. But range scientists make a convincing case that fire benefits not only the rangeland but the livestock and wildlife, as well.
It is said that hot, summer burns are particularly deadly on prickly pear, a noxious plant which has infested many ranches in our area. Herbicide treatments of the pear can run to $25 per acre on the low end to many multiples of that number with the more exotic treatments. Fire might be just as effective, and of course, is much less expensive. But for a fire to do its job, much fuel (old grass) is needed. Here in droughty West Texas, insufficient fuel can be a deal-killer. But in 2019, after several months of extra-good growing conditions, fuel loads are as good as they've been in years. It was time to finally give fire a trial run.
But uh-oh. Just as that decision was made, the county imposed a fire ban. Conditions were deemed too dangerous for outside fires. Long story - short: an extensive fire plan was submitted and our commissioners approved the designated area for a controlled burn.
As you will see in the photos below, fire guards were made on all sides of the proposed burn, a 539 acre pasture on the Duncan Ranch. The tractor and tiller are quite effective for the job, but are better suited to less rugged work such as gardens and rodeo arenas. Back-burn fires are started in layers alongside the fireguards to create a substantial "black line" that has already had all the fuel burned away. This will be a good barrier in case flames come that way. The goal is to keep all the flames within the designated area.
Fires were started using drip torches and propane burners. Neither produces much at first, but if the flames get in the right material, you have yourself a nice fire.
Our main problem on Wednesday was the lack of wind. It never got over 2-4 mph, not nearly enough to carry the flames properly. But with many of our hunting guides helping, we finally got the entire perimeter done by about 5 p.m. when the head fire was lit. The insufficient winds carried the flames only part way across the pasture (roughly a mile-square). But having black-lines 360 degrees around the target area, we could wait for a better wind. Which came yesterday. Ten mph helped a bunch. Several strip head fires were set beginning at about 11:30 a.m. We were done by 2 p.m.
Probably 90% of the area got a decent burn. Preliminary estimations put the pear-kill at maybe 70%, a very acceptable number. Of course, now we shall be praying for rain to come to the denuded, black ground. Our wildlife biologist, Steve Nelle, says that with rain, the area will provide much super-fresh growth and will attract many deer. Hopefully that will come to pass.
Several of the other ranches hunted by Adobe Lodge clients will be using fire in the future. The more we do it, the more we will learn and the better off we will all be.
Regarding the photos below: you will see a photo of a burning cow chip. History books say that such material was the only fuel for cooking when the pioneers crossed the plains in their covered wagons. Surely would be a tough way to prepare a decent meal.
7-28-19 I got invited to a cattle roundup on the Elkins Ranch, about 50 miles west of here. I had always wanted to see it done. Reason: they use no horses - instead, home-made dune buggies get the job done.
Mike Elkins, who kindly extended the invitation, remembers why the change was made ten or so years ago. The cattle were spoiled and wild. Ten cowboys couldn't pen a couple hundred head in a 4000 acre pasture. So one-by-one, the buggies replaced the horses. Skeptics have to see to believe. I am now a strong convert. Of course, not all rangeland lends itself to such a method - too rough, too brushy, too inhospitable for vehicles. But the Elkins Ranch, which dates back 100+ years, is perfect for the rigs.
The ranch personnel each have a buggy, but friends who also built their own using Volkswagen frames and motors, are always eager to come help, using the roundup as an excuse to get to drive their steeds. On the second day, there were eleven different rigs at work to gather the 100+ pairs of cows and calves since it is now weaning time. Bulls were gathered, as well, but they don't always stay with the cows now that breeding season is far behind us.
Most of the cows willingly followed the feed wagon. A few renegades hanging toward the back of the herd tried to escape. A wild chase to try to turn them left your friendly photographer (me) hanging on for dear life, unable to turn loose his death-grip on the hand-hold to employ the use of his camera.
The dune buggy hands know exactly what to do in such a situation. The lead buggy in the chase heads the cow and halts her escape. A cow doesn't live that can out-run one of those speed wagons. Or out-stop, either. But the cow can turn quicker. So there will be a second buggy immediately on her tail, to get right in her face once again. After another turn on her part, there will be yet another buggy to thwart her every move. Before long, she gives up and eagerly returns to the herd and on to the corrals.
The malingering bulls were brought in by three buggies - one on each side and one behind. Bulls quickly learn there is no route for escape. Their only peace is to move in the direction dictated by the three buggies. They even once put a bull in a trailer in the middle of a large pasture by such methods. Unbelievable.
So that I don't have to go to the trouble to label each and every photo, here are some things to know: in the large group photo, Mike Elkins is on the extreme right. Giving the injections to the cattle in the chute are Chad and Mark, his sons. They have one, old longhorn cow on the ranch. The ranch brand is a "Q," but if you turn it upside-down, Mike says it is an apple. Clever, eh?
Also, Chad Elkins had some helicopter photos taken on a roundup last year. The over-head view clearly shows how to control cattle with the dune buggies. Thanks, Chad, for sending your photos to use on this website.
In addition to weaning the calves, cull cows were identified and removed from the herd. Problems were addressed, as well. A couple of cows had their horns growing into the side of their head. Quick work with a portable reciprocating saw gave them each instant relief from their continual headache. Amazingly, neither cow offered thanks to their benefactors.
I am indebted to Mike Elkins plus Chad and Mark, and their wives who put out some of the best food you ever ate. I tried to hire them to cook at the hunting camp, but had no takers.
In the photos below, you will see a limousine buggy, used only to drive groups of family or friends around to see the sights on the ranch. It is too long to head a cow.
No doubt, the old legendary cattleman, Charles Goodnight, who brought the first cattle into the Texas panhandle back in the 1880s, would not believe such a sight as those dune buggies. But things will get even more progressive in the coming couple of years. Mike has acquired a big drone with a quality camera to help locate the scattered cattle on the vast ranch. When that day comes, the buggies will be able to cease their sweeping and prowling to go straight to the part of the pasture where cattle are to be found. What a deal, eh? Do we live in modern times, or what?