Written by Greg Simons and Ruben Cantu, Wildlife Biologists | Wildlife Consultants, Inc.
“Measure twice, cut once” is good advice for carpenters—and for landowners who are considering brush management. Unlike mown grass that can spring back within days, brush-based habitat can take years to recover from overzealous or poorly planned brush removal.
Before you cut, define your objective: Why are you manipulating the brush? Is it to improve habitat for a specific species like white-tailed deer or quail? Or is it to maximize forage production for cattle? Or, perhaps, it’s a matter of aesthetics? Or a mix of all of these things?
There is not a right or wrong answer to these questions because each landowner’s goal is unique, but the answers to these questions is the first step in determining what your brush management activities will entail.
Before you cut, familiarize yourself with the plants and animals on your property
Different wildlife species rely on different plant species for food and cover. If you don’t know what a white-tailed deer likes to eat or what type of cover a quail prefers for nesting, then it is possible that you could remove the very things that will make the most impact.
Generally, white-tailed deer require more brush, ideally about 50 percent, while quail prefer a more open landscape with 20 percent to 30 percent brush cover. If you’re hoping to manage for both, the sweet spot will be somewhere in between the extremes.
Also, know your plants and how they respond to manipulation. For instance, red buds respond positively to a prescribed burn, coming back with new growth and improved vigor, while pecan trees and hackberry trees are easily damaged by fire. Understanding these nuances will help you choose which brush management tools are best suited to your situation.
As you consider the brush on your ranch, remember that every species can make positive contributions, even mesquite and juniper. Mesquite beans are high-protein food sources for white-tailed deer, livestock and other mammals. Birds rely on juniper berries. When winters are hard or drought rolls in, white-tailed deer will eat juniper too. Both species prevent erosion, add organic matter, and provide cover. Generally, brush density is a bigger concern than brush species.
Before you cut, understand the pros and cons of each brush management method
Landowners have four brush management methods at their disposal: mechanical, chemical, biological and prescribed fire. These methods can be used singly or in combination. Each has its pros and cons.
Mechanical brush control methods include root plowing, roller chopping, excavating and shearing. On the plus side, mechanical brush control allows you to be very selective. On the negative side, it is very expensive. William Conrad, who manages 42,000 acres of conservation land on behalf of Austin Water Utility, estimates that the utility spends $300/acre to $350/acre for mechanical brush control.
Chemical brush control methods include aerial application and individual plant treatments (IPT). While chemical treatments are not as expensive as mechanical treatments, they still carry a significant price tag. Chemicals can be used to treat large areas quickly and efficiently, but, in the case of aerial treatments, they are less selective, meaning that desirable plants can be damaged along with the target species.
Biological control methods include insects that are pests to a host species such as salt cedar beetles, and livestock, namely goats. Biological means mimic natural processes and can be less expensive, but they can be slow. They also require constant monitoring and can be highly variable. Goats are non-specific browsers and can damage desirable species if landowners do not monitor vigilantly.
Prescribed burning also mimics a natural process, but its usefulness is not always well understood by local government or the public. It requires significant planning, preparation, training, labor and a very specific set of conditions to be implemented correctly. It is possible that a landowner can prepare for a burn for a year or more and then not have the conditions to implement it. For example, at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Station in Sonora, which is a leader in prescribed burn research, the staff has not been able to conduct a single burn in the past five years because of the ongoing drought.
Before you cut, take some field trips
Visit other ranches and see how they’ve managed brush. Field trips make your brush management options easier to visualize.
Through the years, range managers have experimented with several different patterns for brush removal. The most common are: blocks, strips, checkerboard and mosaic also known as brush sculpting.
Different patterns offer slightly different benefits. In recent years, the mosaic pattern has become very popular, especially on smaller ranches. It follows the land’s contours, instead of the rules of geometry, making it more aesthetically pleasing to some.
Before you cut, ask questions
Good sources of information about brush management are your local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) range and wildlife specialists; Texas AgriLife Extension range and wildlife specialists; and wildlife biologists from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or private sector consultants.
Cost-share programs are available through NRCS, which helps landowners stretch their money and maximize the impact of their management efforts.
These resource professionals also have access to the maps, software and other tools that are helpful during the planning process.
Before you cut, plan for the short- and long-term
Consider the variables and the economics. How much land are you managing? What percentage of brush do you want to maintain? Can you afford to tackle the entire ranch at once? If not, where will you begin? What is phase II, III and IV? Are some parts of the ranch better suited for chemical control and others for mechanical control? Do you want to leave travel corridors or riparian areas intact? If you are implementing a prescribed burn, how long will those pastures need to be rested before and after the burn? What steps will you take to maintain the progress you’ve made?
Brush management is not a one-time proposition. Natural systems are dynamic, so your brush management plan has to include follow-up treatments. Before you spend money creating open space, it’s important to know what you’re going to do to keep it open.
Since the late 1880s, Texas has transitioned from a state dominated by grasslands to a state dominated by savannahs. Brush is part of the vegetative mix. Land managers have learned that attempts to eradicate brush are futile, while well-planned efforts to manage the brush yield good wildlife habitat and success.
To learn more about the role that brush management and other strategies can play in improving your land, contact Wildlife Consultants at (325) 655-0877 or see our website at www.thewildlifeconsultants.com.