Management strategies for rangeland and pasture recovery
By Gilda V. Bryant
After flooding, pasture and rangeland recovery is demanding, time-consuming work for ranchers. Not only are there fence and equipment repairs, but high water may also damage plant populations. Learn what the experts recommend for grassland care after the waters recede.
Although the Texas coast has more planned drainage infrastructure than the rest of the state, the flat terrain along the Gulf is often submerged during tropical storms and hurricanes. During torrential rains, rivers can also overflow their banks and leave water standing for days.
Stephen Deiss, operations officer with the Thomas M. O’Connor Ranches in Victoria, advises ranchers to take advantage of modern weather forecasting. Armed with accurate knowledge of approaching storms, they can better safeguard both their families and their cattle. Popular weather apps for smartphones and other electronic devices include Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com), MyRadar (www.myradar.com), and Accuweather (accuweather.com).
Deiss recommends preparing for an imminent flood by moving cattle to the ranch headquarters where feed and water are available. If that is not possible, move stock to a water supply located on higher ground. Animals can shelter in place on sandy soil, which drains more efficiently than clay. With proper grazing management, sandy soils leave plant residue and more forage is likely to be available for grazing.
After the water recedes and the area dries, look for damage and debris while checking cattle. Drones can help operators create cleanup and repair plans by locating stranded animals, damaged fences, and deposited debris. Another crucial task is to remove or bury dead animals, which attract predators and insects. Carcasses are also a source of disease.
Remove foreign objects such as metal, building debris, fencing material, chemical containers, or other items that can injure livestock. Check rangelands and pastures for long strands of barbed wire hidden by vegetation.
When debris has piled against a fence, producers may haul it to a dump site or burn it on site. First, make sure the area has no hazardous items in the pasture or drainage area. Tidal surge often deposits propane tanks, petroleum containers, tires and other objects that should never be set on fire. Then before burning non-toxic rubble, determine if the county has an active burn ban.
Sometimes pastures are evenly covered with debris following a storm. Most of this material is caked with mud and other inorganic materials, which do not burn. These items cannot dry effectively and there is usually inadequate grass or other forages present to provide sufficient dry fuel for a controlled burn.
Producers will have to manually pick up large branches, tires, and sheet metal. Ranchers can potentially shred small branches, twigs, or clumps of plant material. By chopping debris into smaller pieces, it decomposes more quickly.
While ranchers have to repair or re-build damaged fences, this can be a positive opportunity.
“Although producers learned to deal with their grazing systems, given the chance to improve on the system, they would,” Deiss recalls. “When their fences were destroyed, they designed them to correct faults in the previous grazing system.”
Deiss also advises taking advantage of stockpiling forage prior to hurricane season. In this situation, cattle do not graze a pasture with sandy or loamy soils located on higher ground during the spring and summer months. This inactivity allows forage to grow and accumulate, ready for both shelter and grazing during and after flooding.
Influx of parasites
Additional items to check after the water recedes include gravel, rocks, sand, and silt deposits. Producers may have to grade and level these areas. Check ditches, ruts, eroded stream banks, scouring and holes, making necessary repairs. Be prepared for an influx of pests, including flies, mosquitoes, and parasites.
“I checked a ranch after an inundation from a tropical storm,” Deiss recalls. “While looking at a fence post, I saw all manner of bugs just above the waterline. It is better if cattle pull off the tops of plants rather than graze down low, exposing themselves to parasite larvae.”
In some areas, mosquitoes can be so numerous that they prevent cattle from breathing, causing suffocation, according to Deiss. During the most recent round of flooding along the Texas coast, some ranchers sprayed insecticides around trap areas before working cattle to make conditions bearable.
Previous parasite treatments for cattle will continue to be effective, and it is imperative producers stay on the established dosing schedule. Consider installing dust bags, backrubber cables, or applying insect sprays with a power sprayer for pasture fly control. Systemic pour-on and injectable insecticides, treated blocks, and mineral feeds are additional fly control options. Check with a local veterinarian or county extension agent to learn the best ways to control insects and parasites.
Restore water sources
Additional repair considerations include restoring damaged windmills; however, more operators are taking advantage of the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This USDA program is a cost-sharing plan to help ranchers make operational improvements such as replacing windmills with solar-powered water wells. According to Deiss, most solar panels providing power for wells had a higher survival rate than windmills during Hurricane Harvey.
A windmill can pump 1,500 gallons of water per day. Deiss says this is a good figure to use when planning adequate water supplies for stock, depending on the herd’s numbers. He encourages producers to provide sufficient water storage for times when wells do not operate to capacity. Deiss recommends building a trough with a nearby pond for either windmill or solar-powered pump water overflow. Other improvements may include building earthen tanks or water retention ponds to catch and store rainwater in rangelands. EQIP dollars may help with these upgrades, as well.
“The best policy is knowing where your cattle are at all times,” Deiss concludes. “Understand the land features of your entire ranch and plot your strategy ahead of time. Keep an eye on the weather and act accordingly.”
Check soil moisture days, weeks after the flood
Operators also need to check soil conditions in each pasture after flooding. If low-lying areas of sandy soil drain well and feel firm when walking, that is a good sign that cattle can soon return to the pasture. Conversely, if soils are wet and feel spongy, experts advise not returning livestock to those areas until more drying occurs.
Tony Provin, Ph.D., Extension Specialist at Texas A&M University, recommends that when the soil is firm enough to support the weight of a vehicle, ranchers should dig a hole six to 12 inches deep. If the soil is muddy and a mud ball dropped from three feet stays intact, this area is not ready for livestock. If cattle move to wet pastures too soon, ranchers may see short-term gains but will have long-term losses from soil compaction. Conversely, if a dropped mud ball falls apart, soils may be dry enough for cattle to enter the pasture.
Compaction occurs when soils contain high levels of moisture. Water acts as a lubricant, forcing individual soil particles closer together. Channels, or macro-pores, allow water and air to move through them. They gradually decrease in size forming small spaces (micro-pores) that store water. During compaction, these channels compress. Plant roots cannot spread through the soil, reducing root development, and the ability to absorb nutrients and water. Eventually, soil compaction reduces the plant’s biomass production or yield.
Salt in the pastures
When can livestock return to pastures? The experts say, “It depends.” During many tidal surges, salt water and other contaminants are diluted; there is no ill effect from salt in pastures unless the property is located where hurricanes came ashore. Provin recommends that producers conduct a routine salinity soil test for flooded areas. Take representative six-inch deep samples from different parts of the pasture for assessment by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service soil testing labs. Visit agrilifeextension.tamu.edu/solutions/soil-testing for soil analysis prices and discounts.
Provin warns that there are times after a tidal surge when remaining debris and vegetation contain significant amounts of salt.
“We do not want livestock trying to graze until there has been adequate rainfall to wash off the surfaces,” Provin explains. “If you are downstream from a potential pathogen source, you do not want livestock grazing on E. coli, salmonella, or other pathogen-tainted forages. Rainfall to wash the vegetation and UV light from the sun are Mother Nature’s greatest destroyer of many of these pathogens.”
When Hurricane Ike crashed across the Texas segment of the Intracoastal Waterway in 2008, heavy clay soils did not absorb salt. However, salt still damaged plants. Experts from Texas A&M University collaborated with county government and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials to expedite cleaning of drainage ways. High rainfall dissolved salt from plants and surface soils, flowing into drainage areas.
Heavy salt or sodium infiltration causes an increase in soil pH and a tremendous decrease in air and water infiltration. In these conditions, Provin recommends applying gypsum and calcium sulfate to smaller pastures at appropriate rates to offset sodium levels.
Producers should also check healthy populations of desired forage species in pastures and rangelands. It is more economical if plants are healthy enough to grow on their own without seeding or sprigging. If producers do not have irrigation, they may not be able to establish grasses before the summer heat dries soil surfaces.
“Unless there is timely rainfall, we are looking at remediation and re-seeding in early fall when we have cooler temperatures,” Provin explains. “At the same time, we do not want nighttime soil temperatures to drop below 70 degrees at the two-inch layer.”
In warm-season grasses, most root systems turn over annually. During prolonged periods of flooding, root systems are prematurely lost. Provin is concerned that saturated subsoils in East Texas and along the Gulf coast will cause continued damage to roots. Forages may not recover and could actually enter drought stress because their roots cannot absorb water, nutrients, or oxygen.
“I suspect we will have poorly performing pastures, even those that have maintained vegetation and adequate surface density,” Provin says quietly. “Performance during the summer will probably be weaker than we would normally expect.
“My advice is to go out with a shovel and dig,” Provin concludes. “See what you are facing right now. Just because a neighbor is doing something does not mean your particular soils are in the same condition. Evaluate what you have and do not be afraid to walk across the field and dig every once in a while. The most valuable information we can have is the soil condition. You can run a soil test to determine nutrient issues. But no soil-testing lab will tell you the physical condition, whether it is saturated, compacted, or looks pretty good. Often, seventy-five percent of what you learn from soil testing is by collecting samples yourself.”
Rangeland and pastures can recover from flooding with good management. Being aware of both short and long-term issues will increase a rancher’s ability to maximize these resources and avoid even greater loss when the waters recede.
After the Flood is excerpted from the May 2019 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.
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