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Texas rancher and NRCS work together to survive drought

Landowners and producers in Texas never could have predicted 2011’s severe drought conditions that impacted small and large operations alike.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service helped many of these ranchers and farmers survive the drought using technical and financial assistance, including successful conservation planning.

Stuart Fisher, an Ellis County rancher, came to NRCS before the drought took hold 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, or EQIP, to use 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.

Key Points

Rancher and USDA-NRCS work together to cope with drought.

More than half of Texas is in the grip of a major drought.

Use of cover crops can help soften the impact of a drought.


He credits NRCS’ technical assistance in getting his conservation plan off to a great start last spring, before the drought intensified in Texas during the summer.

Tom Clark, NRCS soil conservationist in Ellis County, assisted Fisher from the beginning, while successfully working the conservation plan for Fisher’s property.

“NRCS has helped me take a neglected piece of land and turn it into a productive ranch,” Fisher says. “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.”

Good results

The conservation plan for Fisher brought results, by using the best practices for clearing brush, laying out rotational grazing systems, selecting sustainable grasses and maintaining weed control. As summer came upon Texas, drought conditions became more severe.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor in November, more than half of Texas was in extreme to exceptional drought, while most of the rest of the state was in severe drought. 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. So Clark and Fisher recently met to discuss 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 says.

He notes Fisher had made several reductions in his stocking rate, as well as reducing his herd. “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,” Clark says.

Some of the hardships Fisher has 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 non-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 says. “Stuart had to sell more of his 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 control weeds. A combination of oats and hairy vetch was planted until the brush piles could be burned and leveled so seedbed prep could begin for planting the permanent grass.

“Stuart has chosen to improve nearly all the lands he owns, and recently started 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 says.

Technical guidance

The only grasses Fisher used for most of the growing season on his land in 2011 were King Ranch bluestem and a mixture of native grasses. He notes 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 the 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 says. “I look forward to working on future projects with NRCS.”

Clark says 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 says. “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.”

Henry is with NRCS in Weatherford, Texas.

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

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PUSH BRUSH: 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 Stuart Fisher. Here, clearing mesquite was vital on pasture for seeding, even though brush piles could not be burned with burn bans throughout Texas. Photos by USDA-NRCS

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of THE FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.