Going Native at Billig Ranch

by Larry Gfeller

This is a follow-on to“Choosing a Path of Stewardship.”

It was late afternoon and the sun was angling down.  Thunderheads boiled overhead.  The next morning the sky was milky blue; the ground damp from the evening rains. The land smelled of the dampness held in the earth. Work opportunities were dragged out in April, but, in the end, native grass seeds made their way into the ground at Billig Ranch. After a period of some uncertainty, it appears our eradication of mesquite trees in February was successful. Still more assaults were done in May and June—we will schedule as many sessions as it takes.

 Land steward David Vogel was anxious to get the planting done because timing is everything.

Little did he expect persistent rains to present the problem they did. In addition to struggling with the weather, we appear to have a new problem—feral hogs! While we study methods of control, David points out the issue may not be all bad, “Historically herds of bison periodically churned up the soil, so native grasses are adapted to some degree to such soil disturbance.” Still, unless the hogs move on to greener pastures, wildlife biologists statewide know the damage they can inflict.  It’s a new challenge. . .an additional opportunity to learn.


The science of planting native grasses can be complex.

The terrain at Billig Ranch, like much ranch land throughout Texas, was overgrazed.  Without adequate topsoil, moisture absorbability becomes a problem real quick. We used a method known as no-till cultivation. No-till agriculture is nothing new, although this form of planting has gained renewed popularity in the agri-business industry of late. Actually, it’s been around since man first scratched the earth and dropped in seeds.  The ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians and the Incas of South America all planted their crops by poking the ground with a sharp stick, dropping in seeds, and then tamping the ground with their feet.  Instead of sharp sticks, we opted to rely on a specialist.  We used the equipment and expertise of the Wildlife Habitat Federation (WHF), under the direction of Mr. Jim Willis.

Because of the unusually heavy rains this spring, our job took longer. 

After the first two days of planting the rains came, interrupting our plans.  Waiting for the rain to stop is an unaccustomed delay in Texas; however, the clouds finally cleared and we were once again able to work in the field.  A total of four days were invested in fully covering our targeted acreage.   We planted a mix of Big Bluestem, two varieties of Little Bluestem, Sideoats Gramma, Green Sprangletop, Indiangrass and two varieties of Switchgrass.  With funding help from the National Resource Conservation Service (EQUIP program) and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (LIP program), Jim Willis’ crew set the stage for a sustainable natural ecosystem to emerge.  Fortunately, the rains continued, providing near ideal conditions to get this conversion process launched properly.

 After waiting for rain to cease long enough to plant, many of the ridges on the property became as hard as a crowbar, literally overnight, and no-till coulters were needed to cut into the soil.  This occurred even when other lower lying areas remained wet.  Another issue is that native grass seed is generally lighter and fluffier than other seeds.  To solve these problems, the equipment used was a 12.5 ft. Truax no-till seed drill, an implement which has coulters in front to cut through stubble and litter, double disk openers to open a trench in the soil for the seed to drop into, depth bands and hydraulic controls to regulate the planting depth, and press wheels to insure good seed-to-soil contact. 

This ain’t your father’s seed drill!  For instance, the floating double disk openers are staggered to keep trash from accumulating and restricting planting.  Using such a drill helps to eliminate more of the human factors that might restrict getting a good stand of native grass.  The idea is to plant at just the right depth without costly seed bed preparation.  Not only does this save a lot of time and expense, it also provides for accurate seeding rates, precision seed placement and minimal disturbance.  It happens with little loss of soil moisture and nurturing organic material.   

Jim related the logistics of getting the equipment on site: 

“We transported the drill with a ¾ ton truck and tandem wheel trailer that was rated at 10,000 GVW lbs.  The drill weighs 8,400 lbs. and the trailer close to 2,000 lbs., so we were at maximum towing capacity.  We also transported a 12,000 lb. 4WD John Deere tractor with a large diesel truck and flat-bed trailer (similar to an 18-wheeler).   The total distance for transporting all equipment from Cat Spring to the Billig Ranch was 82 miles.”  In other words, it was more of a chore to safely transport the equipment (it took a crew of three men) than it was to actually sow the seed (a one man job).

The science of no-till planting is intriguing.  According to the Pennsylvania Nutrient Management Program, no-till planting leaves more than 30% plant residue in its aftermath.  This is important because more plant residue encourages rain to infiltrate the soil and reduce evaporation.  No-till also has been shown to leave higher populations of beneficial insects and a higher microbe count. These microscopic critters in the ground can make the difference between a lush inflorescence and a half-naked, starved plot. From a practical standpoint, there is less dust and debris created compared to conventional tillage—and less fuel used to get the total job done. “Although other planters might be easier to transport, easier to use and faster, these advantages are inconsequential when considering the results,” Jim Willis says.

Here’s another factor to consider:  native grass seed is more expensive to purchase.

There are good reasons for this. First WHF harvests some of the seed from the same ecosystem it is to be planted in because it needs to grow and compete with endemic invasive species.  Each season WHF sends locally harvested seed to Bamert Seed Company where it is cleaned, analyzed and bagged.   These seeds are then mixed with germplasm, other seeds selected at USDA/NCRS Plant Material Centers which have been grown by commercial seed growers like Bamert. Most of the grass seeds planted in the mix at Billig were commercial varieties from early successional plants (those that germinate the first growing season), medium and late successional varieties.  Willis says, “Some of the late successional seeds (including the local ecotypes) may take five years to germinate—which is nature’s way of dealing with factors like droughts or floods.”

Despite the higher cost, consumers need to focus on value per unit of cost. 

Buyers should insist that native grass seed have a seed tag showing it was tested just before being shipped and buy it on the basis of PLS (pure live seed) pounds.  This is a calculation which insures the highest purity is matched with the highest germination rate and is expressed as a percentage. PLS pounds may only be 40% of clean seed bulk pounds, therefore halving the quantity of quality seed needed, according to Mr. Willis.  He goes on to state, “WHF always tells its customers to buy from reputable seed companies that sell on a PLS basis.”

While this is PPLT’s first major attempt at conversion to native prairie grasses, WHF has been at it since 2004. The original motivation for WHF was (and still is) restoration of habitat for upland game birds.  After receipt of a federal grant to do just that, WHF established the first quail corridor in the state.  Texas A&M University researchers discovered 31 species on the original 200 acre test plot after 5 years of proper follow-up management.  In the beginning, the quail corridor resulted in WHF collaboration with landowners controlling 2,000 acres over two counties.  Today the organization is working with landowners who control 40,000 acres in a dozen counties.  Jim says, “No one wants you to be successful more than we do.  We like to work with people who also have a passion for restoring prairies.”

But this is not a “slam dunk.”

Ample rains received at Billig this season are a questionable blessing.  Invasive species will be difficult to control if not sprayed precisely when these plants are growing most actively.  Some invasives (which have lain dormant for years) may germinate after competition is reduced by the first herbicide treatment and then jump-started by recent rains.  Early successional natives may not be able to compete with the early successional invasive species.  If that happens, the game plan changes:  selective herbicides, controlled grazing and prescribed burns would need to be used at just the right times to give natives the needed edge over invasives.  Because some natives take five or more years to germinate, this becomes an endurance contest, or outright war.  Several battles may be required to win the war!

As for PPLT, there are several goals in mind here.

As our first major restoration effort, the Billig experience will serve as an experimental clinic for our other rehabilitation projects.  Another major goal is to create a healthy savannah to support a diversity of insects, birds, herps and mammals—to include enhancing survivability of the endangered Houston toad.  We intend to monitor the impact on local wildlife populations.  Finally, we envision a meaningful educational tool for both organizations and individuals interested in studying our model for environmental sustainability.  Stay tuned for occasional updates about our journey. . .we mean to do Mr. Billig proud!