Restoring Desert Grasslands: Yeomans Keyline Subsoiling Results at the Circle Ranch, August 2014
Here is a cheap, fast, environmentally-friendly alternative to range poisoning with herbicides. When combined with holistic planned grazing of cattle, and a diverse population of wild animals, this practice leads to rapid conversion of subsoil to topsoil, increases soil fertility, improves and restores water function, and, is sustainable.
Beginning in September 2013, we subsoiled around 1,100 acres in the Lopez Pasture, located in Circle Ranch’s northern high grasslands. We used a Yeomans Keyline plow pulled by this 67 hp tractor. Plow lines were set on contour using a laser transit.
2013: Over time, plant communities died out leaving extensive areas of the ranch bare. These areas are showing surface erosion. In the left-center and lower-right are two creosote bushes which died from lack of water.
This is a typical response on the bare ground, which is interspersed with grass. Thistle, broom weed, croton, and many other forbs have sprouted in the furrows. No seeding was done.
Some of these new grass plants represent rejuvenation, while others are seedlings.
This pronghorn is grazing on new weeds, which are growing in the plow lines, appearing as green streaks. Pronghorn depend on weeds, which are disappearing because of range poisons and cattle removal. Pronghorn are disappearing fast and no “expert” can say why. Once there were as many as 50 million. Pronghorn were never found apart from bison. Hoof action of the great bison herds, and later cattle, sheep and goat herds, stimulated the growth of pronghorn food (weeds) as well as grasses. Pronghorn have big livers, allowing them to eat weeds that are toxic to many animals. Today, dying pronghorn are often infested with intestinal parasites, which in my opinion, are suppressed by the toxic weeds, critical to pronghorn diets. These same weeds are critical to quail and deer. Cattle, the bison substitute, get up to one-third of their food from forbs (weeds).
Poisoning these weeds with herbicides like Tebuthiuron (Spike) destroys the diverse plant community on which all grasses depend, and kills the food plants critical to the wild animals that such poison programs are intended to help. Plus, Tebuthiuron is highly toxic to animals.
Just as plants need all of the other plants in order to be healthy, so do animals. Creatures like this wild burro co-evolved with pronghorn. Horses and their ancestors have been in our deserts for 50 million years. Human impact caused them to disappear 5,000 years ago. They have been back for 500 years, and yet, our game “managers” say that these animals harm pronghorn. An entire industry has grown up around the eradication of wild plants and animals that are declared to be “invasive” based on the false science of “Invasion Biology.” Invasion Biology is more akin to a religion since its deeply-held eradication beliefs have no scientific basis. Its practices are a costly boondoggle which harm habitat and wildlife.
In fact, desertification coincides with the removal of the natural impact of herding ruminants. Although much desertification is rightly blamed on poor ranching and agricultural practices, the rootcause of grassland desertification worldwide is the decimation of large herding animals, and their predators and cousin creatures that were essential to ecosystem health.
That is why at Circle Ranch, even though we have run as many as 1000 steers, our primary source of animal impact comes from mule deer, pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, elk, aoudad, llamas, alpacas, burros, horses and even a little herd of goats which we keep for cabrito. And we leave the predators alone. Our bottleneck is water for the animal numbers needed to ‘mow’ all the plant growth.
Everyone advocates biodiversity. Use your common sense: We cannot restore biodiversity by destroying biodiversity!
It has to rain! Planned grazing and subsoiling will not work without rainfall; however, even deserts get amazing quantities of water. Circle Ranch gets 12 inches per year: 1 acre-foot per acre, times 32,000 acres. That’s 10.5 billion gallons of water. Most of this runs off or evaporates within hours. Recapturing just a fraction of these billions of lost gallons creates more water than thousands of desert wells could produce.
To quote my friend Steve Nelle, NRCS-retired range scientist: “When you pray for rain, just make sure you can take care of what you get. This is the essence of good range management in far-West Texas. ”
4,800 feet: In this photo, we are about 1,000 feet lower in a very large area of completely bare ground. The green grass grew after treatment three years ago. We have re-treated and gotten a lot of new plants, which need more rain in order to continue to grow.
Same area, extensive bare ground is seen in the far distance. In these areas, we mowed the creosote before subsoiling.
Immediately below is a video taken from a small drone, using a random spot along our fence line. I was very surprised by these comparative outcomes, which are not visible from ground level.
Our neighbor ranches in the traditional West Texas manner. He runs a few cattle, perhaps 30 in this pasture, year-round. Just over his fence, we grazed 450 cows and their calves for 25 days in the winter of 2013. Our approach required and removed more grass than his approach. We did the subsoiling at the same time the cattle were being grazed, so we had both mechanical and animal impact (including that from all the wild animals mentioned above) on the soil. I find the results both dramatic and satisfying.