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Living the good life together: Manage rangeland for cattle and deer

Living the good life together: Manage rangeland for cattle and deer

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Ranch profits usually are enhanced by a diversification of enterprises due to an increased number of revenue sources.

Risk also is reduced when it can be spread across more than one profit center. A common ranch diversification is a cow-calf operation and hunting, which can be more successful if rangeland is managed properly for both animals.

Cattle and deer compliment each other in native range utilization, primarily because they eat different types of plants. On an annual basis, a white-tailed deer's diet consists of 52 percent browse (woody plants), 36 percent forbs (non-woody broad-leaf plants) and 12 percent grass. The annual diet of cattle is 7 percent browse, 12 percent forbs and 81 percent grass. Because of their plant preference, cattle eat grass that is not beneficial to deer and will consume only small amounts of browse and forbs. There is very little overlap in the diets of the two animals.

At a cattleman's field day on the Solana Ranch near Salado, Mike Michaux began his presentation by talking about grass and efforts to keep it healthy. After discussing range management practices, he then talked about cattle and whitetail deer. This rancher has his priorities in the correct order, because available forage is the backbone of any ranching operation and without it, profits suffer.

Solana Ranch is owned and operated by Kirk Michaux and his son, Mike Michaux, who work together to demonstrate that deer and cattle can be managed successfully on the same land. Kirk's father bought several thousand acres and established the ranch in 1950. It later became Kirk's responsibility to keep the ranch on a self-sustaining basis, which is done with cattle and deer.

"Land and water conservation is our number one goal," said Mike Michaux. "We want to keep the ranch productive for future family generations. My son will be the fourth generation Michaux that will manage the ranch."

Management practices

"Our range management practices benefit both deer and cattle," Mike Michaux said. "The cattle stocking rates are purposely conservative so that we can retain grass for drought periods and maintain good soil condition.

"We plant oats in some of our fields for winter grazing and sorghum for summer grazing. This gives us the opportunity to graze cultivated crops while our pastures rest. Cattle are also rotated among pastures. Normally we maintain enough grass so that the cattle are not forced to eat browse and forbs, leaving them for the deer."

"Continual prickly pear and cedar control programs are maintained," Kirk Michaux said. "These two plants are serious invaders and provide very little benefit to deer or cattle in our area. Hydraulic shears mounted on a skid steer loader are used to cut cedar at ground level, which leaves roots in the ground to control soil erosion. Since the species is blueberry juniper, it doesn't resprout. We aerially spray prickly pear with either Surmount or Tordon 22K.

"Care is taken to avoid spraying our hardwood trees that include elm, pecan, postoak, blackjack oak and live oak. These trees benefit deer by providing cover and a fall food supply of pecans and acorns. The groves of trees also provide the cattle with shade and protection from bad weather. Understory growth such as sumac, hackberry, and wild grape are left for deer browse"

Cedar and other woody plants regularly are removed from the riparian areas on the Solana Ranch which results in spring rejuvenation. The flowing springs supply the creeks with year-long water that benefit both, the deer and cattle.

Stocking rates

The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service helps the Michauxs with their cattle-grazing plans. Forage inventories normally are taken twice a year. The first sampling is taken during the first part of July, when 70 percent of the forage has been produced. Forage production is measured again after the first killing frost in the fall. This second measurement shows how much forage was consumed during the growing season and how much is available for winter feed.

"Forage production can easily be determined with a common yard stick, which is used to square off one square yard on the ground," said Jeff Goodwin, Natural Resources Conservation Service state rangeland management specialist. "Forage available for grazing is clipped at ground level inside the square, put into pre-weighed bags and allowed to air dry for two to three days. Then the dried forage is weighed in grams. Pounds of forage per acre are determined by multiplying the net weight by 10.7. Forage is clipped at enough locations across the pasture until a representative sample is obtained."

"Once the amount of total available forage is determined, the next step is calculation of available animal days per acre," Goodwin continues. "An animal unit consumes approximately 26 pounds of forage per day. Let's assume we have 50 cows that collectively will consume 1,300 pounds of forage per day (50 X 26 = 1,300). If we estimate 4,000 pounds of forage per acre and there are 150 acres in the pasture, we have a total forage production of 600,000 pounds (150 X 4,000 = 600,000). We want to use 25 percent which gives us 150,000 pounds of available forage (600,000 X 0.25 = 150,000). Dividing the amount of available forage by the daily herd consumption tells us that we have 115 grazing days in that particular pasture (150,000 ÷ 1,300 = 115). Events such as drought, grasshoppers or armyworms could change this number, so constant monitoring is necessary."

Deer management

"Deer population sizes are managed with the help of Texas Parks and Wildlife," Kirk Michaux said. "We take annual deer censuses during August and September by spotlight surveys. A deer spotlight survey is a method of sampling a given area of land and its deer density. There are designated routes on the ranch which we drive and stop every tenth mile each year before census is taken. At the stops, we estimate the length of visibility perpendicular to each side of the road. These measurements plus the length of the route are used to calculate visible acres."

"During the census, the routes are driven at night and all observed deer are counted and listed on the tally sheet as bucks, does, fawns, or unidentified," Mike Michaux said. "We send the census numbers along with a completed information form on our past year's management practices to the Parks & Wildlife field biologist. He uses our submission and his own habitat condition evaluation to determine the deer habitat carrying capacity. By comparing the deer census with carrying capacity, the number of deer that need to be harvested can be estimated."

Carrying capacity is the number of animals an area can support while maintaining the health of the animals and the habitat. In general, when deer densities are lower than carrying capacity, food is abundant. When deer numbers exceed carrying capacity, both deer and habitat are stressed.

Cattle and deer complement each other in range management. At proper stocking rates, cattle control grass density and height which opens the canopy for forb production providing a source of deer food. Correct cattle stocking rates also reduce the amount of plant litter, resulting in less fire hazard. Deer help control certain types of brush which enhances grass production and they browse on the lower tree limbs improving cattle access for shade. To reap benefits from a cattle/deer combination, deer populations must be kept in balance with habitat condition and cattle numbers must be managed to match the amount of available forage.

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