Brush continually encroaches onto grassland areas of King Ranch as a result of frequent and extended droughts, the cessation of fire, and the lack of grazing deferment.
This ongoing brush encroachment has led to a gradual reduction in higher successional grasses and have slowly turned King Ranch from a “sea of grass” to a “sea of brush.”
Obviously, from a cattle ranching standpoint, replacing grass with brush is detrimental because carrying capacity is reduced leading to lower stocking rates and small profits. King Ranch began actively fighting this brush invasion in the early 1900′s. In fact, many of the mechanical methods of brush removal used today were developed on King Ranch.
However, from a wildlife standpoint, this brush encroachment increased habitat diversity and provided for a tremendous baseline food source during times of drought for a wide array of wildlife species. White-tailed deer especially, benefitted from the spread of brush.
Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr. recognized as early as the 1940′s the economic value of wildlife and its reliance on brush. Thus, with the hiring of Val Lehmann, a systems approach to managing the brush, wildlife, and cattle was initiated.
Stephen “Tio” Kleberg, past President of King Ranch Livestock and Ranching Operations, is credited for actually implementing the philosophical changes that resulted in wildlife attaining higher value on King Ranch. During Tio’s tenure, King Ranch began leasing hunting rights for the first time in 1979. At present, nearly 500,000 acres of the ranch are leased to 40 different corporations and family groups.
Obviously, the economic return from this change has been substantial. As a result of the trend toward leasing, and the increase in wildlife-generated income, the ranch began to realize the value of brush. This shift in attitudes resulted in a corresponding shift in management that allowed for a balance among grasslands and brush. The ranch’s brush management goals have shifted over the years from an initial period of brush eradication, to a period of brush control, and finally, to its current form of sculpting brush to manage it as an important resource.
King Ranch management, recognizing the importance of having a comprehensive brush management plan in place, established a review team of noted experts in the fields of range and wildlife management in 1998. This team assisted the ranch with defining the appropriate landscape mixture of brush and grass and with methods of brush management. Based on information provided by this review team, Paul Genho, past Vice President of Livestock and Ranching Operations, formulated the currently used brush management guiding principles.
GIS and GPS techniques are used to design the brush management patterns employed on each pasture. The targeted goal, following treatment, is for 65% of the pasture to be open grassland and 35% to remain in brush. This ratio should meet wildlife needs for concealment, browse, and edge, while also improving forage production for cattle. Typically, a strip pattern of brush removal is used, with 5% of the pasture acreage left in small mottes of scattered brush throughout the treated strips.