By John Wallace
Rancher David Daigle loves the look, form and function of the once common but now rare longleaf pine savanna.
When Europeans came to the New World, longleaf pines dominated the coastal plain from southeast Virginia to southeast Texas. Many of those pines went to beams, masts, tar and pitch used in shipbuilding. Landowners replaced the trees with crops and faster-growing commercial pine forests.
But Daigle and fellow ecologists in both public and private sectors see more value in the native longleaf pines.
"This is a prairie with trees," the Ragley, Louisiana, rancher explains. Longleaf pines tend to space themselves apart and their small crowns allow sunlight to hit the ground. That allows for growth of a diverse vegetative understory.
And that situation is good for cows, high-quality timber and native flora and fauna, he says.
Daigle has championed the longleaf pine savanna on his own property since 1983. That's when he bought his first tract near where he hunted as a youth.
Since then he's added more and improved what he had. Along the way, he's provided a home for two endangered species – the red cockaded woodpecker and a rare plant, American chaffseed.
Daigle's efforts have earned commendations from environmental groups, agencies, and, most recently, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA). Daigle is one of six regional winners of NCBA's 21st Environmental Stewardship Award co-sponsored by Dow AgroSciences, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Fit and function
To make his farm work economically, Daigle tries to utilize – but not overuse – all the values the savanna provides.
Carefully thinned timber is chief among those. Longleaf pines grow slower than loblolly pines and don't produce the volume per acre. But longleaf pine is higher quality, so Daigle targets the market for poles, beams and flooring. Cabinet woods may be in his future.
"For these markets, you have to grow grain slow and tight," he says.
"Timber is a long-term thing. When you sell in a good year, it's good money. It provides a larger income, but it doesn't occur every year. So cattle are the yearly cash flow."
Cattle are "compatible grazers" in the savanna. Rotational grazing or low stocking rates mimic use by native ungulates. Daigle manages his cow herd for "production with low inputs in this environment," he says. Braford genetics have worked the best.
Of his 1,100 acres, only 30 are in introduced pasture and those are mostly on the perimeter of his tracts. Established in bermudagrass and interseeded with ryegrass, they also serve as fire breaks.
Speaking of fire...
"Fire is the driving factor in this system," Daigle says. "We try to get three burns in over a five-year period."
Daigle burns in the first quarter of the year and sometimes into April and May. The longleaf pines are resistant to fire, and the burns recycle nutrients, promote plant diversity and create succulent new growth for wildlife. The result is perfect for raising high-quality deer.
"We have good, strong hunting leases," Daigle says, "and it's primarily due to the fire regime."
What fire does not do is solve Daigle's invasive problem.
"The key thing we fight is Chinese tallow," he says. "It's an exotic invader that takes over the landscape and ruins the herbaceous layer. It devalues the grassland."
Fire sets back Chinese tallow, but some of the plants will resprout. So Daigle combines fire and hand-applied herbicides. He uses both foliar- and basal bark-applied treatments of Remedy Ultra herbicide.
"First, we kill the seed producers," he says. Those are Chinese tallow trees 6 to 12 inches in basal diameter. For those, he uses a mix of 25% Remedy Ultra and 75% diesel or cooking oil. He sprays the mix on the lower 12 to 15 inches of the trunk, careful to completely circle the tree.
"Once you eliminate the seed trees, then you'll have seed germinating. That's when we run through and use the foliar spray with water," Daigle says.
Those trees he typically sprays with a mix of 1% Remedy in water with a surfactant.
With either method, his sprayer of choice is a simple, one-gallon pump-up sprayer. While he does much of the work himself, he also hires a summer crew of two teenagers to help.
"We'll use four-wheelers to carry jugs and water," he says. "We'll have both the foliar and basal mix. It's best if you can spray and come back two weeks later and see what you missed."
With either method, Daigle has come to expect 90% control of what gets treated. His regular prescribed burns then recycle the dead wood.
But it's not a one-time job. New tallow plants continue to invade. About every third year, Daigle expects to go through a tract and spray. The continual combination of burning, spraying and grazing is key to maintaining this savanna, he says.
For all his accolades from environmentalists, Daigle doesn't see his management scheme as all that different from other ranchers.
"We steer ecosystem function for man's values. That's all we do," he says. "This one just values the natural community a little more."
Wallace owns Wallace Communications in Grapevine, Texas, and produces Range and Pasture Steward for Dow Agrosciences.