Working with drought, not against it

When Steve Wooten was standing in his southeastern Colorado pasture, it was hard to tell his part of the state was in varying stages of drought.

During the recent Stockmanship & Stewardship virtual event, Wooten, a rancher and past president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, spoke about his drought experience. He’s gathered up a number of tools and techniques to ranch during low rainfall periods.

On the Beatty Canyon Ranch, the unique terrain of the Plains features large canyon structures that converge with the Arkansas River. The family operates in the canyons and tributaries of the Purgatory River, often finding themselves in the bottoms of those canyons in the winter months and transitioning to higher elevations in the spring, summer and fall.

“You’ve heard it many times that you can’t change or manage something that you don’t measure,” Wooten said. “And with grazing management, you’ve got to have some semblance of a level of tracking your progress.”

As for gathering samples, Wooten uses a 100-foot line and then takes measurements every 2 feet and records what is under the line.

“So if we hit a grass species, we list that grass species. If we hit litter on the bare ground, we list litter. If we hit bare ground, we make a note of whether it was bare ground or not,” he said.

Since they’ve started tracking, they’re able to use those tools and estimates, along with visuals to track their progress. They’ve adapted Conservation Stewardship Program practices and templates to fit their needs and it works well on their rangelands.

Rotational grazing provides increased rest times for pastures, and this too has been a work in progress. He’s changed his way of thinking since the 1990s when they started working to improve pastures.

“We evolved from thinking about the number of days that we grazed to the number of days that we rest in a pasture during the growing season,” he said. “We don’t count winter rest as recovery. It’s dormant time and it’s real slow.”

They adapted their thinking and became much more conscientious of the rest periods and try to achieve 120 to 150 days of rest in the growing season for every pasture over a year’s time.

“Those pastures won’t necessarily get that rest in the same interval as you graze in,” Wooten said. “But even over winter you try to get that rest period extended as best you can.”

Gentle cattle help make grazing management easier as they move them frequently through a rough environment. Having cattle that run and hide when a cowboy crew comes to move them just doesn’t work. The Wootens have also worked on their cattle’s bloodlines in their crossbreeding programs, selecting for a gentle demeanor.

Wooten believes you have to find your weakest link when trying to improve your operation, especially where rainfall is limited. You’ve also got to maximize whatever quality of grass you can grow each year.

“In our area particularly, that weakest link is water,” he said. “I kinda like to joke that over four generations, we’ve pretty well perforated this ranch and it’s very difficult in this region to be successful when one of five, or more likely one out of 10, wells drilled that yields enough water to put a pump or a well on top of it.”

Given the cost of drilling a well, it’s an expensive expenditure when a hole comes up dry, Wooten said. Earlier generations on the ranch were able to utilize earthen dams to stop erosion in troublesome areas, but now they’re dual-purpose areas to water livestock and wildlife, plus a place to congregate the livestock. In one such area they added a 4-acre lot around a pond, with pens built adjacent to it. There they’re able to process cattle when needed.

By pushing the limits of the water resources, they’ve been able to get more grass growing and available. This redistribution of grazing has also helped with invasive species like tamarisk and gamma grasses. Mechanical control of these pests has also helped the land be as productive as it can.

“The end result is we get an open pasture back,” he said. “We get tremendous response to the grasses once they’re free from any competition to utilize that minimal moisture.”

At the ranch, they average anywhere from nine to 14 inches of rain each year and need to do everything they can to take advantage of what precipitation they may get. Over the years they’ve cleared 4,000 acres on the ranch from invasive species of tamarisk and other grasses.

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With the work they’ve done, they’ve been able to increase carrying capacity of pastures. Even in years when there wasn’t significant moisture through the winter, they were able to still leave enough cover to graze in the spring and still function.

“It’s not a case where we’re out of grass—it may just be year old grass and it’s dry but protein and mineral and vitamin supplements can make it work,” Wooten said. “Maybe most importantly we’re keeping rain and snow where it lands, instead of it running off. It gets trapped by that extra grass that’s on the ground so it stays put where it’s at.”

Wooten believes beef producers are striving to do much better in stewardship and management of their lands and working to find tools that help them become profitable in the meantime.

“There’s many more (tools) and I think we should be excited about the work that’s being done at our universities and our industries to help us find profitability,” he said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].