Outstanding Rangeland Stewardship2009 Recipient: J. K. "Rooter" Brite, JA Ranch - Bowie, Texas
One outstanding Texan is doing his part to create sustainable agriculture production in a way that is compatible with the environment and Texas' natural resources. A short drive west of Bowie, Texas on State Highway 59 will take you through a ranch that is so pristine; it looks as it would have 150 years ago.
Described by some as a "conservation activist," James K. "Rooter" Brite, Jr. is a born-to-the-land Texas rancher in Montague County. He was born and raised on the ranch his grandfather, J.A. Brite purchased in 1929 near Bowie, Texas. His grandfather put most of the ranch together during the Depression years from bankruptcy and foreclosure sales. Brite took over his dad's cow herd in the mid-1960s and purchased the ranch from his father in 1974, when he began full time management of the ranch with his wife, Lynda and son, J.K.
The ranch lies in a transition area of tall grass prairie and cross timbers region of North Central Texas. Brite runs over 850 cows and yearlings on 3,400 acres of shallow, rocky soils in an area that receives less than 30 inches of rainfall annually.
At an early age he learned the cause and effect of different land management practices. Not enough rain resulted in limited grass and water supplies. Misuse of the land can cause desirable plants to die and less desirable weeds to thrive. However, as he ranched he learned that if you give to the land, it gives back to you. These first-hand lessons he learned from the land stimulated his desire to learn more.
By college age, Rooter was intrigued by the land. He had experienced positive results on the land, effectively managing his herd of purebred Hereford cattle. Being immersed in ranch life every day of his life, he had learned many ranch management skills, but he knew there was more to it. He wanted to learn the science behind it.
Upon high school graduation, he enrolled in Texas Christian University's one year Ranch Management program. One professor in particular captured his attention. TCU Professor Chip Merrill saw an unusual trait in Brite - he had an aptitude for range management and a true desire to leave the land better than he found it. Merrill inspired Brite to try new things and not be afraid to try something different.
"I apply land management practices that are practical, using common sense," Brite says. "I don't do things because they are what somebody else thinks might be good. I do things because they work on this land, and that's what makes the difference."
As a result of those early influences on Brite, over the past 30 years he has developed a ranch management program that is a model for land owners and a showcase for sustainable management of natural resources.
Cattle are the center of Brite's operation. He uses them not only to produce income for the ranch, but also as a tool to manage the range for optimum health.
He runs a pure bred Hereford cow-calf and stocker operation, with retained ownership through the feedyard on a portion of the stockers.
"To protect against drought we're only stocked at about 50% of our pastures' potential with yearlings, perhaps as much as 75% with cows," Brite says.
"I keep the ranch stocked on observation," Brite continues. "I adjust grazing management primarily on forage conditions, and secondarily on the cattle condition. We have to keep them healthy and bred to be a viable operation, but we want the range in good condition too."
Within Brite's cattle herd are yearlings, two-year old heifers, three-year-old cows and a small group of older cows. Brite keeps the different types of cattle separated so he can better meet each of their different nutritional requirements.
The winter stocker operation utilizes small grain pastures (wheat and rye), usually beginning around the first of November. Brite limits access to the grain fields by utilizing adjacent high quality native grass pastures. On the native pastures, the cattle are rotated to maintain a minimum stubble height of six inches or greater utilizing a multi-pasture rotation system.
The stocker cattle are given access to the grain starting with about two hours daily, and increasing by about one hour each week up to eight hours daily until the last six weeks, at which time they are given full access to the grain fields for optimum weight gain. A substantial added bonus to this type of management is the gentle, daily handling of the cattle. Additionally, any sick cattle can easily be spotted and treated with a minimum amount of stress. The daily grazing rotation program also allows for easy removal from grain fields in times of ice or snow to prevent trampling of forage.
Over recent years Brite has adopted the use of motorcycles, four-wheelers and cow dogs to handle the livestock. All of the land is contiguous, with the exception of a state highway that runs through the middle of the ranch. According to Brite, the speed and cost effectiveness of this motorized management has simplified operations considerably. This equipment has the great advantage of being very low impact on the land, especially during wet times.
With the land and livestock, low impact and gentle handling are trademarks of Brite's management techniques.
"Our income is generated by the cattle gaining weight and breeding well," Brite states.
"We take every opportunity to handle the cattle gently and effectively."
Brite attributes the gentle nature of his cattle to the use of rotational grazing and associated handling of the livestock. The stress and risk of injury is greatly reduced for both cattle and cowboys. Only two or three cowboys are needed to pen as many as 500 to 600 head in one group.
Livestock and wildlife benefit from the diversity of plant life on the JA Ranch. A mix of grasses, broad leaf and woody plants provide forage for many types of wildlife. A wide variety of wildlife can be found on the ranch. Brite closely monitors the annual harvest of white tail deer, turkey, quail and ducks. There are no high fences on the ranch - Brite allows all the wildlife to come and go as they please.
Brite also offers anglers great fishing opportunities on his ranch. Bass and other species thrive in his stock ponds that receive clear water runoff thanks to the dense ground cover of the watershed. Because the majority of the ranch is watered with stock ponds, nearly 60 of them, quail, deer and other wildlife have easy access to fresh water supplies year round.
There are areas on the ranch that are designated as exclusive wildlife habitat. Brite also notes that rotational grazing plans are very conducive to producing good wildlife vegetation.
"The deer are always one pasture ahead of the cattle," Brite says. "If I want to go check on the deer, I know where to go."
In addition to excellent range conditions, the wildlife benefit from the wheat and rye grass Brite plants in the late fall. While the cattle have limited access to the grain fields, deer can be seen grazing on the lush greens all winter and spring.
"I have found that when I do things that are good for the land and the natural resources, there are a lot of other benefits that come from that," Brite says. "In addition to better livestock grazing, wildlife also benefits from healthy range conditions and improved watering sites."
Wildlife is considered in all of Brite's land management decisions. For example, with his prescribed burn and brush control programs, Brite intentionally leaves edges for forage and cover in his pastures.
Brite makes sure wildlife has easy access to the watering facilities on the ranch, most of which are ponds. When renovating ponds of adequate size, Brite constructs an island to encourage the presence of waterfowl. Brite has allowed brush and trees to grow up and create a "riparian buffer" along his creeks and streams. These buffer areas are havens for all types of wildlife.
The JA Brite Ranch has had an active conservation plan with the Montague County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office since 1964. A prescribed grazing plan, prescribed burning, riparian buffers, pipeline installation, and brush control are just a few of the practices the ranch has benefited from over the last 40 years.
The ranch has 49 pastures which vary from 20 to 170 acres, generally averaging about 80 acres. Brite uses a three to 10 pasture rotation, at any given time of the year. He usually maintains a separate rotation for fall and spring calving cows, first calf heifers and a stocker operation of heifers and steers that are also kept separate. Grazing time on each pasture varies greatly, depending on the time of year and how much weight is in each herd. There are times of the year, such as calving time, when the calving cows are dispersed into multiple pastures and rotating is stopped for as long as two months to lessen the problem of orphaned calves before restarting the rotation. This method allows for more ease of checking on a daily basis.
Participating in the Great Plains Conservation Program in the early 60s and again in the 80s, Brite chained brush, shaped gullies, renovated native pastures and built stock tanks. Over the years, he has re-established stands of big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass.
The best range sites on the ranch can produce up to 5,000 pounds of forage per acre, and varying down to 200 pounds per acre on the poorest sites. Although Brite has never broken out any native land for cultivation, about one-third of the ranch was in cotton production prior to their acquisition of the ranch in 1929. The cotton fields created some difficult challenges due to extensive depletion of top soil in many areas, along with some extensive gully erosion. Beginning in the 1960s, the Brites began attempting to reintroduce native grasses to those old field sites. They have experienced limited success, seeing those areas return to a level of productivity that varies greatly.
The ranch is watered by over 60 water sites, varying from pipelines and water troughs to stock ponds.
Brite's range management consists of a combination of rotational grazing, prescribed burning and weed control. He utilizes intensive grazing for weed control on pastures in the spring for a three week period to achieve good weed control on a limited number of pastures where he is able to achieve great enough stock densities. In years that moisture is adequate and sufficient fine fuels are available, Brite uses prescribed fire for weed control and to refresh grass. He has an aerial spraying program that is set up on a four year rotational basis.
Brite's goal is not to eliminate all weeds, but rather to maintain a highly productive native range. On the prairie pastures, he sprays in early spring using herbicides based on 60 foot strips, but to reduce costs and still achieve the desired results, he extends to 90 foot strips. On the pastures in the post oak areas, he extends the spray interval to 120 feet, in order to be assured of leaving adequate forbs for wildlife. The pastures have had about 15% woody plants and trees left to provide cover and browse for deer, turkey, and quail.
The prairies are totally clear of all invading brush. This has been accomplished by proper rotational grazing and hand removal of invading mesquite and cedar. With this approach to brush removal, Brite averages about 100 acres per hour using two people and 4 wheelers.
Brite approaches the resource management of the ranch using a short term reactionary response to changing forage, production and anticipated market condition. His long term management is of a continuing upward trend in success of native forage. He has seen range conditions improve over the past years. In the 1960s, range specialists from the NRCS conducted base line assessments, classifying pastures in poor to fair condition. More recently, NRCS personnel assessed the ranch and determined that all pastures were in good to excellent condition.
"I feel like we can utilize our current management methods and maintain or improve the productivity of this ranch in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner," Brite says.
Brite's cow-calf operation is stocked at one animal unit per 10 acres. Comparatively, neighboring ranches that have not implemented resource management plans are stocked at approximately one animal unit per 15-20 acres.
Brite not only leads by example on his own ranch, he actively works to promote land stewardship and education at the community, state and national levels. Most of his time is volunteer and often at his own expense.
The Brite Ranch has been a member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers association for Brite's entire life. He has been a director of the TSCRA since 1999, and has served on their Agriculture and Research and Natural Resources and Environmental committees since 1994. He is a member of the Texas Wildlife Association. He has served as a director of the Upper-Elm Red Soil and Water Conservation District since 1979. He has served on the Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation Districts board and on the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board. He represents the National Association of Conservation Districts on the National Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative Steering Committee. Additionally, he serves on the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Natural Resource and Environment Committee.
Brite has hosted numerous field trips on the ranch in cooperation with Cooperative Extension, NRCS, and Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) to promote practical approaches to many different areas of conservation management.
Mr. Brite is a role model for how sound grassland, livestock and wildlife management can work together with good conservation practices. He is a land steward and a national leader for conserving rangeland and protecting the environment. Please join with me in awarding the Outstanding Rangeland Stewardship Award to Rooter Brite and the JA Ranch.