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77 Ranch—

Improved Water Quality as a Crop by Heather Smith Thomas

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photo courtesY oF earl NottiNghaM

lanned grazing and flexibility became a way of life for Gary Price more than 30 years ago on his 77 Ranch in Texas near Blooming Grove. Located in Ellis and Navarro Counties in the Blackland Prairie area, this land where cattle now graze in productive pastures was once farming country, growing cotton. As he has tried to maintain his native prairie land and shift the worn out land he’s purchased back to something closer to prairie, he’s worked to create a landscape that will harvest water that over time may be the most valuable crop he sells. Combining this focus on healthy land with a flexible approach to raising and selling cattle and diversifying income streams has resulted in a successful business model for the ranch.

Growing a Ranch Price put the present ranch together a piece at a time, over the past 38 years. “We bought the first property at that time and added to it with more than a dozen different purchases as adjoining parcels of land became available. The ranch has a mottled look because various pieces have not been under the same management all of those years. We operate about 2,500 acres, 2,000 of which are deeded land and the rest is leased,” he says. “Some of the land had been fairly well managed and some had been abused, so our grazing plan has been a challenge. We’ve built crossfences, but the shape of the parcels didn’t matter as long as they have water and shade. Most of our planned grazing includes these varied pieces. The cattle may be going from a really good situation out of one pasture into a tough situation with a lot of brush and mesquite,” says Gary. “We’ve got some of the original tall grass prairie that’s never been plowed. We have almost 400 acres of this Blackland Prairie. We’ve been told that only about 1% or less of the original prairie is still intact—that was never plowed. So we are fortunate to have some of that—on some of the original property we bought. It’s been a good guide, to show us through the ups and downs of drought what those grasses can do if they are managed properly,” he says. “That particular property has been in our grazing plan now for about 60 years. It’s pretty good, and has been referred to by some NRCS people as pristine. We don’t pamper it; we graze it right along with everything else, but it has been the core area that shows us what we are shooting for on the other parts of the ranch. The cattle may be coming out of that pasture and going into something that’s tougher grazing,” he explains.

Gary and Sue Price

Some of the parcels were farmed in early years. “Ellis County had more cotton at the turn of the century than any other county in the u.S. Back in those days cotton was king and the farmers plowed up everything they possibly could, to grow cotton. Some of this ranch was originally old cotton fields that never were put back into grass; when we got those pieces they were growing whatever grass had come back in. Other parcels had been put into Coastal Bermuda grass. Many of those we reseeded with native grasses. Others we just left because the Bermuda grass was pretty thin and there were still some good native species mixed in.” Just by planning the grazing and giving pastures adequate recovery time, the native species are gradually increasing. “We bought some parcels that were severely overgrazed. Just by keeping cattle off and giving them a little rest, we found there was a pretty good seed source and some native species coming back in. One portion was not particularly overgrazed, but had been continuously grazed for a long time. We rested it because we saw it had a lot of Big Bluestem and now it has more Big Blue than any other pasture we have. When we bought it, however, the grass was very short and it was hard to identify,” says Gary. CONTINUED ON PAGE 10

Number 151

Land & Livestock

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#154, In Practice, March/April 2014