First published in Acres USA
For much of my working life, I spent a lot of time and energy killing. I grew up on a west Texas ranch in the fifties and as soon as I got old enough to work, a regular warm weather job was finding, catching and treating cattle, sheep and goats that were infected with screwworms. This took a lot of time since the animals were running in large brushy pastures and a sick animal’s instinct is to hide. If we did not find the infected animals and kill the screwworms, the animals would die. The worms would literally eat the animals’ alive, one tiny bite at a time. We used a variety of noxious materials in the attempt to kill the screwworms and to prevent the mama cattle, sheep and goats from licking the worm dope off of their babies. In addition, the sheep and goats had to be treated several times a year with other poisons to kill internal parasites and, on occasion, swabbed or sprayed with still other poisons to kill external parasites like wool worms, ear ticks and lice; the cows had to be sprayed regularly to kill horn flies and treated for internal parasites about half as often as the sheep. We spent a lot of time and money killing pests of one sort or another and in the process created at least as many problems as we cured. I am sure there are others – or perhaps there are none at all for minds more astute than mine – but of all of the maladies affecting agriculture, screwworm infestation is the only one that I can think of that cannot be prevented or at least greatly reduced simply with good management. The U.S. government did a wonderful thing for livestock and wildlife when it came up with a program to release sterile screwworms that eradicated these pests in the United States, Mexico and Central America down to Panama by the late 1960’s. This program was unique amongst eradication programs in that it actually solved a problem without creating other problems in the process.
Most efforts to kill pests – even if successful – have side effects that are at least as harmful as the targeted pests. Our home ranch was in sheep and goat country and the local populations of large predators – coyotes, bobcats, lions, wolves, foxes and bears – had long since been reduced to almost nothing by a vigorous assault of trapping, shooting and poisoning by ranchers and the government. Many of the smaller predators – coons, ringtail cats, hawks, owls, and skunks – were killed off along with the big predators as were large numbers of scavengers like possums, turkey buzzards and black vultures. With predators pretty much out of the picture, jack rabbit and pack rat populations exploded; some parts of west Texas were over stocked just with rabbits and rats and, with lots of rats and rabbits to eat, the rattlesnakes prospered mightily. When I was fifteen, Dad gave me a twenty two caliber revolver that I carried any time I was on the ranch. The first chamber to come up when I cocked the hammer was always loaded with rat shot to be used against rattlers; the remaining five chambers were loaded with ball ammunition to be used on rabbits and the rare predator. I habitually picked up a box of fifty rounds when I went to the ranch and often as not shot them all in one day. Occasionally we would go out at night and shoot – usually with shot guns – jackrabbits from the fender of a truck; it was not unusual to kill over a hundred rabbits in a few hours. We traded a predator “problem” for a rabbit and rat “problem.”
The need to have clean wool and mohair led to the less glamorous and a whole lot less fun chore of killing cockleburs and buffalo burrs by pulling up the whole plants to be taken to the bare ground of the caliche pit and burned. It was many years before I realized that cockleburs and buffalo burrs grew only in spots where the grass sod had been damaged by over use. The absolute worst times of my young killing career were spent killing Johnsongrass and weeds in the cotton; if you ever find me squatting down between the rows in a cotton patch; please get help because you will know that I will have gone stark raving mad! My idea of good management for a cotton patch is to turn it back to grass.
My career as a professional killer really swung into high gear when I took over management of the family ranch on the Oklahoma side of the Red River. We had some 1500 head of big Angora goat muttons and coyotes and bobcats were dealing us misery; we were losing goats every night. I hit the ground running with traps, snares and cyanide guns; some nights I would catch three or four coyotes. I shot coyotes by day and at night and even roped one. I killed a lot of coyotes along with quite a few bobcats and several feral dogs but the goat killing continued. I finally waved the white flag of surrender and shipped the goats back to Texas. I still had plenty of killing to do; we sprayed the cowherd every twenty five to twenty eight days to kill horn flies and lice, drenched them twice a year to kill internal parasites and back poured them in the fall to kill ox warbles (heel flies). I carried a vial of epinephrine in my saddle pocket to treat the occasional animal that couldn’t tolerate the load of poison. When I wasn’t spraying poisons on cattle, I was spraying weed poison on pasture or insecticide on pecan trees, wheat or alfalfa. The more poison I used, the more I needed to use just to stay even. I spent a lot of money and a major part of my time killing something; the end result was that I stressed my animals, my bank account and myself; killed all of my pasture legumes, most of the beneficial insects and pretty well any chance of having a profitable ranch.
I was in the classic mode of managing against what I didn’t want rather than managing for what I did want. That statement sounds a little sophomoric but it is actually pretty profound. I wanted healthy sheep and goats that didn’t get eaten by coyotes. What I should have done – and did do later when I brought sheep back onto the place – was to manage to make the sheep as healthy and as happy as possible. First I subdivided my pasture so that I could control where and for how long the sheep were located; by doing this I prevented several problems. With the sheep in a group on a small area, guard dogs were able to prevent losses from coyotes and bobcats and by controlling how close and how often the forage was grazed, I could reduce the number of internal parasites ingested. The ability to control the age of the forage presented to the animals allowed me to keep a high plane of nutrition in front of the animals and thus strengthen their immune systems and their abilities to fight off parasites and disease. Having the ability to completely vacate an area of sheep let me break the life cycles of the organisms that cause foot rot, scours and other sheep diseases. Grazing these areas with cattle while they were empty of sheep further reduced the concentration of sheep parasites as most of these parasites are host specific.
We started increasing the number of paddocks we used in pasture rotations for both cattle and sheep with the idea of increasing forage production and this was successful; we also saw several other effects that were at least as beneficial as the increased forage. The increased number of paddocks allowed me to utilize high stock density – a large number of animals on a small area for a short period of time followed by a period of no animals present. This provided a feast of nutrients – otherwise known as manure and urine – added periodically to the soil and rest periods long enough for soil life to utilize these nutrients. This combination caused an explosion of soil life and the increase in biological activity resulted in more nutrients being made available to forage plants and a general improvement of soil health. Better soil, reduced over grazing of individual plants and adequate rest periods produced healthy, diverse and productive forage mixtures with greatly reduced weeds. The time and money once spent on weed control was now available for other uses and forage legumes and other beneficial forbs began to return to the vegetation sward.
The increase in soil life also dramatically reduced the need to treat animals for parasites; with the spraying stopped and stock density increased, dung beetle numbers increased to the point that when weather and moisture conditions were right, the cattle would come out of a paddock being grazed at 15-20 thousand pounds stock density and in forty eight hours all manure in the paddock would be gone – either buried or desiccated to fluffy bits of organic matter. Pests that hatch in the manure such as horn flies and internal parasites were greatly reduced when the manure was buried or consumed before pests had time to hatch. In addition, the increase in soil life – especially carnivorous nematodes and fungi – caused many pest organisms from stomach worms to heel flies to be consumed in the soil or on the soil surface before they could complete their life cycle. This was true also of plant pests such as grasshoppers, army worms and pecan weevils; healthy and diverse populations of soil life act to prevent any one species of soil dwelling organism from building populations large enough to reach pest status. When the local ecosystem is complex and diverse with many species of organisms – of all types – fewer species of plants, animals and microbes build numbers high enough to become pests. The very tools we use to combat pests – poisons, tillage, and fire – reduce diversity and set the stage for even worse outbreaks of pest organisms. A good example is the amount of time and money we spend fighting “weeds” – we spray poisons, mow and burn and still the quantity of weeds in our pasture increases. Instead of devoting time and energy to killing weeds, we would be better served to determine why the weeds are so persistent. Weeds are present in large quantities only when the local growing conditions favor them over the more desirable forage. Every type of organism on earth has needs and the abilities to satisfy those needs that are different from those of even its’ closest relatives – nature uses these differences to prevent bare ground and the resulting loss of the resources of sunlight, moisture, mineral nutrients and space. For almost any kind of harsh conditions – dry, low fertility, salty – there are plants that can establish and flourish. If we degrade grassland with abusive grazing and weaken the desirable forage plants, nature will replace these plants with others that can tolerate the abuse. By the same reasoning, if we use poisons or fire to take out “weeds”, we reduce the number of kinds of plants present – not all broadleaf plants are weeds – and create empty ecological niches thus setting the stage for even heavier infestations of the plants we don’t want. A hallmark of healthy grassland is a diverse mixture of many kinds of grasses, grass like plants and forbs; this complexity increases the effective usage of resources and gives stability over time. Heavy infestations of ragweed or broom weed or wooly croton or any other “weed” are simply natures’ way of trying to limit the damage our management has done to the local environment.
Rule one for building an operation that is productive, profitable, sustainable and enjoyable should be; manage for the conditions that will give you what you want: healthy soils, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy and prosperous people.
Manage for what you want rather than attempt to kill what you don’t want. To quote Jin Tan – a fictional character in an upcoming book, “A wise shepherd does not kill all the wolves. There should be balance in all things; life and death, hot and cold, sunlight and darkness. It is a rare man who has the wisdom and the balance to be trusted with the ability to deal out death on a large scale.”
Walt Davis is a semi-retired rancher and consultant who now spends time as a columnist and author. He is the author of How to Not go Broke Ranching (available at Acres USA) and A Gathering at Oak Creek. More of his work can be seen at www.waltdavisranch.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org