Native grass works
Native grasses that have proven themselves suitable to the Shackelford County, Texas, environment are the backbone for cattle and wildlife on the Merrick Davis Ranch, operated by H&M Cattle Co.
“No farming here; no improved grasses,” says Rick Hanson, who partners with Matt Matthews at H&M. “It’s just all native grass.”
That includes little bluestem, big bluestem, side-oats grama, vine mesquite, tall prairie grasses, Texas winter grass, buffalograss and indiangrass.
“You don’t have indiangrass unless you have good management,” says Gary Franke, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservation technician in Albany, Texas. “And Rick is a real good manager.”
• Prescribed pasture burning is one tool to promote ample native grasses.
• Pasture rotation is done seasonally, but not as cows are calving.
• A protein supplement is fed to both cattle and deer as it is needed.
Prescribed burning promotes the native grasses, Franke adds.
“We haven’t reseeded anything,” Hanson says. “Just burning off the old, and then getting the new growth.”
“It really has promoted little bluestem on the ranch,” Franke interjects.
Rotate pastures seasonally
In their breeding program, Hanson and Matthews aim for December through February calving.
Calves are later sold in September, October or even November, depending on rainfall. That cycle also determines pasture rotations.
“During calving season, we do not rotate pastures,” Hanson says. “Later, we rotate from the first of April until we wean the calves. That generally means April until the first of October.
“The reason we don’t rotate during winter calving is that here, mother cows will chase the feed wagon and leave their calves behind,” Hanson explains. “Then we’d have to go back, locate the calves and make sure they were paired back with their mothers.”
In addition to native grass, cattle get supplement through the winter and even into early spring — typically from first frost until the beginning of April. Hanson opts for 37% protein range cubes, instead of the 20% protein.
When fuel prices skyrocketed a couple of years ago, the 37% protein cubes, since fewer of them needed to be fed, saved on freight costs.
Hanson also makes sure the cattle have free-choice mineral available throughout the year.
As for grass nutrition, Hanson takes fecal samples from the cattle every 30 days. He packages the samples, freezes them and then ships the samples to Texas A&M University for analysis. Hanson is especially eager to know the results for crude protein and digestible organic matter, or DOM.
“The DOM will really tell you how good your grass is — or isn’t,” Hanson allows. “We found our grass was still getting it done.”
Franke says that shows how Hanson stays out front — by being proactive, rather than reactive. “Fecal samples keep a rancher ahead of the curves. It lets a rancher see if his grass and cattle are headed backwards before they do.”
Wildlife is abundant
The ranch’s wildlife is prolific. White-tailed deer are numerous, along with wild turkey and some bobwhite quail.
Hanson feeds protein to deer for six months of the year in free-choice feeders. The protein supplement is available from January through April for the post-rut period, and then again during June and July to help the does. Certain water tanks also are stocked with bass.
While a few rattlesnakes and bobcats are pretty easy to come across, Hanson hasn’t had many problems with wild hogs, but the population of coyotes has skyrocketed. In fact, during February and March, a government trapper captured 50 coyotes on the ranch.
“The coyotes have gotten out of hand,” Hanson says. “They’ve been hunting hard to feed their pups.”
While he doesn’t know why feral hogs aren’t a problem for the ranch, he has a strong suspicion. “Wild hogs are not a problem for us, but we don’t farm,” he reasons.
The nasty critters have wreaked havoc on many Rolling Plains farms with crops from peanuts to sorghum.
Adding hunting for income
The cattle are paramount, but wildlife also is important to the ranch. Hunters come from the Dallas and Fort Worth metroplex.
“We lease all of our hunting all year long to one group,” Hanson says. “We provide them a house; they can hunt deer, turkey, quail or whatever is legal.”
He’s had success in not just having some big trophy deer, but also in improving the overall average deer score.
However, Hanson says there aren’t as many bobwhite quail as there once were.
Like noted Texas AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist Dale Rollins, Hanson is puzzled and concerned with what appears to be a steady decline of the bobwhite in the Great Southwest.
Hanson only hopes Rollins and others will unlock the mystery and save the bobwhite.
This article published in the May, 2010 edition of THE FARMER-STOCKMAN.