The T- Bar, near Tahoka, Texas, is owned by the Edwards family of Fort Worth, Texas, and managed on-site by Frank McLelland. The owner-manager team’s plan is to aerially spray mesquite, chain the standing dead trees and then use prescribed fire to clean up the deadfall.
T- Bar has a partner in this plan. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) has cost-shared mesquite spraying and dead-tree chaining on the ranch. The shared goal is restoration of a native grassland habitat that benefits cattle, wildlife, water and the land itself.
“If you look at pictures from 100 to 150 years ago, mesquite was just in low spots, and not much of it there,” McLelland says. “Now mesquite is on the increase, and it doesn’t belong here.”
Water and Wildlife
Of interest to USFWS is the string of saline lakes on the T- Bar Ranch. The lakes are important winter roosting areas for migratory sandhill cranes. They also provide habitat for migratory shore birds in the spring and summer.
Some of the birds are considered a “conservation concern,” says USFWS wildlife biologist Duane Lucia. Although the birds aren’t listed as threatened or endangered, the agency is trying to bolster their populations.
Lucia hopes mesquite control will make groundwater available to recharge springs that feed into the saline lakes.
“And we can’t forget the foundation, the grasslands themselves,” the biologist says. “By removing dense stands of mesquite, we are reestablishing the native grasslands.”
That benefits grassland birds and other prairie species.
T- Bar Ranch can use more grass for its cattle, but the owners and manager are also happy to see more native wildlife. “The more open it is, the mule deer like it,” McLelland says. “With brush encroachment, we get more whitetail, but they’re not native here.”
A few years into their partnership, the ranch manager and the biologist see progress, and they believe they have a recipe they can repeat. It starts with mesquite spraying.
Spray Mesquite First
T- Bar Ranch needs the best root-killing mesquite herbicide available. That’s been Sendero® herbicide since it was introduced in 2012. The ranch made its first application of Sendero that year.
Two years later, dead-tree counts pegged the control at 85 percent rootkill. That’s slightly better than the average in research. In prerelease trials, Sendero posted rootkills of 60 percent to 93 percent two years after treatment. It averaged 77 percent rootkill.
McLelland is careful to spray under the right conditions. He consults with his local Range & Pasture Specialist from Corteva Agriscience,™. They monitor foliage, soil temperature, soil moisture and timing. Together, they decide whether to put a plane in the air.
Although spraying was in their budget for five straight years, the ranch sprayed only in 2012, 2014 and 2016 when conditions warranted.
“We try as hard as we can to kill as much as we can,” the rancher says. “We’re never going to kill 100 percent anyway. We’ll still leave some shade for cattle.”
Grass response varies with erratic weather, but there is more grass. “If we eliminate competition for sunlight and water, there will be a response,” McLelland says.
That grass response provides both forage for cattle and fuel to burn. But chaining comes first.
Chain It to Burn It
Chaining brush as an initial method of brush control isn’t used much anymore. The practice calls for two bulldozers, crawling in the same direction, pulling a ship anchor chain between them. The idea was for the chain to uproot brush as it passed over. It often didn’t succeed.
McLelland and Lucia have a different purpose for chaining standing dead mesquite.
“The idea is get it down so it will burn,” McLelland explains. “If the ground is wet, we’ll pull up root and all. We’d prefer it to snap off so it doesn’t create a big hole.”
Experts with Corteva Agriscience™ recommend that sprayed mesquite be left undisturbed for at least three years after it’s sprayed. Otherwise, a live bud may still resprout.
One of the pastures McLelland sprayed in 2012 he then chained in 2015. In March 2017, he and Lucia burned it under prescription conditions. Lucia estimates the fire consumed at least 90 percent of the fallen, dead mesquite. McLelland had deferred grazing for a growing season to allow grass to accumulate as fuel.
“We want 2,000 pounds of fuel to burn, and the dead wood needs to be dry,” Lucia says. “And you have to get it down in the fuel for the fire to consume it.”
By chaining and then burning, the partners are mimicking something Lucia has seen in nature: dead mesquite on the ground burned up in a wildfire.
McLelland was seeing another benefit: Open pastures require less labor to gather cattle. “In this pasture where we sprayed and chained, it used to take 10 men to gather it, and now it takes two,” he says. “And grazing capacity is increased so pounds of beef production go up.”
Lucia and McLelland also like the look of the open pasture. “Standing dead mesquite is just ugly,” biologist Lucia says.
“Not as ugly as standing live mesquite,” rancher McLellan counters.
Disclaimer: Reference in this article to any specific commercial product, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the Department of the Interior.