Story by Maggie Malson, photos by Shawn McCoy
Known for its wet, humid, relatively warm environment, the area along the upper coast of Texas near the Gulf was in rice production at one time or another but has reverted back to livestock grazing. The special character of the land, in combination with a desire for proactive management, has allowed rancher Bobby Enloe, Montgomery, to improve his pastures, control invasive brush and increase wildlife habitat, while providing quality forage for his crossbred cow herd.
“We were trying to make some additional money off the property to help get it paid for, so I told my youngest son, who is a duck hunter, that he could create a duck habitat on about 45 acres,” says Enloe, who purchased his Chambers County ranch 10 years ago. He worked with Ducks Unlimited on a cost-share project to install water control structures, allowing flooding and enhancing waterfowl habitat.
“I watched my cows that winter and they stayed out in that project eating this grass that grows up,” he says. “The cattle grazed the grass all winter and stayed in good shape.”
Another advantage Enloe saw with the DU project was the brush control.
“It is amazing what happens when you flood something during the winter,” he explains. “My pastures look like they are improved pastures. I pull the water at the end of duck season and once you get the right weather, that grass is just so green. We have these wolf brushes in this part of the country, and when you flood it, it kills them, and you don’t have to mow them.”
Seeing how well the system was working, Enloe visited his local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) office to have more laser leveling done to flood additional acres. Leveling allows for even distribution of water across the flooded fields and positively impacts water quantity usage. He learned about the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP), which was offered through a conservation easement.
“I looked at the GRP and thought it would be a great deal,” Enloe says. “All it really restricts me from doing is farming on it. Everything else is just like what I was doing.”
Enloe worked with David Manthei, who was the USDA NRCS district conservationist in his area in 2011 when Enloe applied for the easement. They worked together until September 2018, when Manthei relocated.
“It was a long process,” Enloe says of the paperwork needed. “But it was well worth it. It was a blessing for us and helped us pay off the ranch, which was a big deal. David was fantastic to work with.”
Manthei noted that Enloe already had good grazing practices in place and helped the rancher develop the long-term plan for how the land would be grazed in perpetuity.
“Normally, when you flood a grazing pasture with forages on it, you wind up with vegetation not suited for livestock or with a big mud hole for part of the year,” Manthei explains.
“But because he was right on the Gulf Coast in this pocket of historic prairie marshlands, what that Ducks Unlimited project did was completely restore the prairie marsh vegetation. You have this beautiful lush, native historic plant community that cows can eat. The water keeps the cows from grazing it too far down and keeps the grass from freezing. It’s a very self-sustaining process, simply by re-flooding those fields.”
In 2015, Enloe worked with Manthei again to update the plan to flood some additional fields.
“It was one of those rare occasions where flooding the pasture is going to be beneficial and the water will actually be part of his grazing practice,” Manthei says. “Maintaining the flooding was important not only for duck habitat but for weed control and for actual vegetation management.”
Because Enloe already had an approved easement, approval from other NRCS specialists was needed. Jason Hohlt, Zone 4 rangeland management specialist, was contacted to evaluate the amendment to Enloe’s grazing plan.
“Mr. Enloe had submitted a request to install a water control structure, a very small dike, on the easement so he could periodically flood part of the property,” says Hohlt, who visited the ranch to see the project first-hand. “We thought, from a wildlife standpoint on the upper coast, that would be good for waterfowl. But we wondered, ‘what’s it going to do to the grass community?’”
What he learned surprised him.
Hohlt knew that places previously used as cropland tend to be invaded by shrubs and trees like Eastern baccharis and Chinese tallow, which landowners struggle to manage.
“As you get more tallow and baccharis on the land, you grow less grass underneath it,” he explains. “A traditional way to manage that would be to spray it with herbicide or conduct a prescribed burn. What Mr. Enloe had figured out was that if he ponded water long enough, those species cannot stand to be inundated for an extended period of time. Basically, he drowned them.”
Another interesting discovery for Hohlt was from a livestock production standpoint.
“For the soils that he has, and where he is located, when you create that kind of water regime on the land, there are some grasses that will grow in almost wetland conditions that are still good forage for livestock,” he explains. “One is longtom paspalum. Mr. Enloe was essentially managing brush with water and growing some of these grasses that grow very well in water. He fluctuated his water level to manage that situation instead of spending money on chemicals.”
The additional structure request on the easement was approved. Duck season begins in September and runs through the end of January, which is when Enloe floods the nearly 200 acres his grazing plan is approved for now. Hohlt made a second visit to the property in 2017 to make sure the grazing plan was being maintained.
“Everything looked really good,” he says.
Building his cow herd
In addition to seeing Enloe’s land management when visiting the ranch, Hohlt also observed the cow herd.
“I thought his management was really unique, from how he is running that ranch to how he is selecting the animals, he is essentially managing them to do for themselves,” Hohlt explains. “The cows that do not produce in the system, he moves on and does something else with them. He keeps selecting over and over again to get animals that will perform. He impressed me as someone that has a low-input, profitable system out there.”
Enloe purchased his first cows when he was 19, borrowing from the bank and slowly building his cow herd. He partnered with another cattleman, who has since passed away, and still runs cattle through his estate near Montgomery in addition to the Chambers County ranch.
“I built it all, just having a regular job and adding to it until I had enough to do some good,” says Enloe, who grew up with an uncle who raised cattle.
“You have to buy cattle that adapt to the country you are in,” he advises. “These cattle are not gentle cattle. They are mostly Brahman cross. You cannot come in here with a cow that has been fed and pampered all its life.”
The majority of Enloe’s cattle have been raised by him since he keeps many of his replacement heifers. Due to the mild climate, Enloe can calve year-round, with the majority of calves coming at the beginning of the year. He then markets the weaned calves through local sale barns.
“The Braford bull is the main bull I run down there,” he says. “They seem to hustle and do better.”
Because of the uniqueness of his grazing plan, the cattle can also graze year-round.
“You will see them out there in the winter,” he says. “They will be knee deep in water, just grazing away. It is kind of strange to see. Once you pull the water and the grass starts greening up, they just naturally go to it.”
Until Hurricane Harvey, Enloe did not have to feed hay in the winter.
“2017 was tough with the hurricane and then three snowfalls in the winter,” he says. “It killed the grass and I could not get the hay down there fast enough.”
Despite the challenges of weather and market volatility at times, Enloe feels lucky and thankful.
“The cow business is a different business every year,” he says. “We have had hurricanes. Low prices are the worst part. You can overcome anything if you make a little bit of money through hard work. It has worked out well though. The good Lord has taken care of me.”
Benefits to Ranchers
For ranchers considering using conservation easements to preserve their ranch land, Enloe recommends contacting their local USDA NRCS office to learn more about the available programs. While the Grasslands Reserve Program he enrolled in no longer exists, the 2014 Farm Bill created two programs, one that focuses on wetlands, and one for use with privately owned cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland, and forestlands.
“In his easement, Mr. Enloe essentially sold the rights to NRCS to not develop the land,” Hohlt says. “But he still has the rights to use it according to his grazing management plan. The easement guarantees that the land will never be subdivided or converted to non-grasslands.”
NRCS determines the market value for the land and how much they can pay for the rights.
“Just using arbitrary numbers, an example would be NRCS might say, ‘the market value for that land right now is $2,000 an acre,’” Hohlt explains. “We think an easement on there is worth $450. We will offer to buy a $450 easement from you to keep from developing that land and keep it in grass. The landowner receives compensation to help pay for improvements to the land.”
The compensation for the easement provides equity.
“Ranchers can put the money back into the land, develop infrastructure, maybe pay off a note on the property, all those kinds of things with those dollars as well,” Hohlt adds. “There are a lot of possibilities.”
The new program, which replaces the GRP, is an Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). It still provides compensation and guarantees the land to remain undeveloped, but now requires a third party to be involved. A rancher contacts a land trust or entity to partner with them. The entity would hold the easement and would apply to NRCS for partial funding to pay for it. Hohlt says that even though the program requires an additional element with the rancher and partner organization, conservation easements can be beneficial to landowners.
“I’m working with a gentleman who has done a tremendous amount of grassland restoration on his property,” Hohlt says. “He is not 100 percent sure if his children will take it over and want to manage it, but he wants that property, and what he has accomplished, to maintain intact.”
In another example, the compensation from a conservation easement will allow a multi-generational ranch to continue.
“It is a ranch that has been in the family forever and they will never want to sell it,” Hohlt explains. “With them, the market value of the property is almost irrelevant. For them to be able to harness that kind of money out of a large ranch allows them to buy more property next to them.”
Managing Grass is excerpted from the February 2019 issue of The Cattleman magazine. Join today to start your subscription.
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