The Gradual Disappearance of the Range Grasses of the West

The Gradual Disappearance of the Range Grasses of the West

By I.W. Tourney, 1894

In the early days of our great West almost the only method of travel from the Mississippi Valley to our western coast and intervening points was by caravan.  Wagons drawn by horses or cattle were several months in making this journey.  During this time the stock subsisted entirely upon the natural forage afforded by the country traversed.  For the most part, this forage was perennial grasses, which at that time were everywhere abundant.  Then the whole of the West was a great pasture, unstocked, save for the herds of buffalo, deer and antelope.  Many regions which were covered with a luxuriant growth of nutritious grasses are now entirely destitute of vegetation, if we exclude a few straggling, stunted bushes and the yearly crop of annuals which follow the summer rains.  As a more specific case, the rancher who drove the first herd of cattle into Tonto Basin, in central Arizona, found a well-watered valley, everywhere covered with grass reaching to his horse’s belly.  In passing through this region a year ago scarcely a culm of grass was to be seen from one end of the valley to the other.  This transformation has taken place in a half-score of years.

The important native forage grasses are perennials, many of them of the great western genus Bouteloua.  Their growth in all parts of arid and semi-arid regions is slow.  The grasses which formerly covered so great an area of our West were years in developing their root systems, and, in not a few species, even the culms were of several years’ growth.  When only cropped by the deer and buffalo they were able to hold their own against the drought and other agencies of nature.  By stocking this great western country with the herds of civilization, these grasses were mowed down before them like timber before the forest fire.  They are gradually becoming less and less, and it is only a question of a few years when, in many regions, they will disappear as a material factor in the natural forage of the country.  Regions long distances from water, out of reach of the great herds of cattle everywhere on the un-fenced domain of each western state and territory, are yet well-covered with perennial grasses.  Last year in passing over a large un-watered area north of Prescott miles of country were found covered with grass, while in much more favored localities in the vicinity of water these species have entirely disappeared.

Cattle men are putting down wells in many of the un-watered regions and moving their herds thither.  The first year the forage is excellent, the next year it is not so good, and the third or fourth year it becomes so poor that the well is abandoned and another sunk in an as yet unfed locality.  The more arid the region the more disastrous is the effect of overstocking.  When stock are driven into a locality they are allowed to increase, not in proportion to the amount of forage that the given range is in condition to furnish year after year, but as many are grazed as can find feed for the time being.  No consideration or thought is expended on the future.  This condition of things has been most disastrous to stock-men throughout the West.  To within a few years the efforts of cattle-men were expended in increasing the size of their herds, and this continued until nearly every vestige of the perennial grasses was swept away.  Since that time cattle have died by thousands, the assigned cause in most cases being cold weather or drought, when in reality it has been the lack of forage; the direct result of stocking the range to a greater extent than the natural conditions year after year will justify.

Many are deceiving themselves in thinking that a few rainy seasons will bring back the rich perennial grasses of the years gone by.  It seems to me, under the present condition, the time can never come when our western range will be as rich in forage as it was ten or more years ago.  Under the most favorable conditions, with cattle entirely excluded, it would take many years for these grasses to get the foothold that they formerly held.

The annual grasses, mostly the smaller Boutelouas and Aristidas, are not so disastrously affected by overstocking.  They seem to be always on hand to cover the plains with verdure after the rainy seasons.  They furnish excellent forage during the short period that they are at their prime, but at the most they can only provide feed for three or four months of the year.  The ranchman makes a marked distinction between the annual and perennial grasses.  He aptly designates the annual as “seed grasses” and the perennial as “root grasses”.  The seed grasses soon become worthless, their bleached, short culms are broken and beaten into the sand by storm and wind.  The root grasses retain their vitality and remain green for the greater portion of the year.  Even when dry, their harder, stronger and larger culms contain as much nutrition as well-cured hay, and are, or rather used to be, the valuable winter forage of the West.

In conclusion, there is a limit beyond which no range can be profitably stocked.  If we exceed this limit it will not only be detrimental to the permanency of the range, but in the end will be disastrous to the stock as well.  It is but natural that a growth of top is necessary to a growth of root, therefore if the tops be continually cropped to the ground, the roots will finally perish.  This is especially true of grasses of arid regions, growing in bunches or scattered about here and there a few culms in a place.  The range is frequently fed so close that few of the better grasses mature seeds, while many others are tramped out by horses and cattle.  During the past few years the effect of over-stocking has shown itself in the inferiority of the cattle when compared with those of former years. They are poorer as a consequence of their increased number and the resulting deterioration of the range.

Editor’s Note:
There are few paragraphs published in the English language that so plainly and so greatly illustrate the destruction of livestock operations employed upon the Western ranges; especially those published within a decade of the first major overgrazing peak of the 1880s.  Even fewer are those which were written as the damaging process was occurring.  So early were Mr. Tourney’s words published and so little heeded were his words in the years following their printing, that here we are today attempting to restore those very ranges.

Author: J. Crumpler

Grasslands ecologist. Native seedsman.

4 thoughts on “The Gradual Disappearance of the Range Grasses of the West”

  1. Why don’t they listen to the warnings? It’s a selfish, cash-driven cattle business, and yes, the cattle are inferior compared to their former glory.

  2. Glad to see you posting again, Jameson.
    Texas A&M seems to recommend a stocking rate of 1AU per 8-10 acres on “good” grass as a number that will not unduly disrupt the ecology. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Dave,
      Good to hear from you.
      My thoughts on stocking rates – they’re never static and nor should they be. Forage production, at least in native grasslands, is highly variable across time and space (acre to acre, soil type to soil type, week to week, even day to day, etc.). And realize that livestock don’t always consume at maximum daily forage intake.

      How you stock depends on what your end goal is: beef production on exotic forage grasses, or occasional grazing for range restoration/prairie restoration, etc. But also realize there are numerous grazers other than cattle: rabbits and hares, soil nematodes, detrivores, ants and termites (these two increase their activities and grazing pressures in drier years), etc. The underground grazers (nematodes and others) probably make up the largest amount of grazing pressure on rangelands, often matching or exceeding that of above-ground grazing pressures. Hard to visualize since we can’t see them. The above-ground portion of grasslands is just the tip of the iceberg. The effects of the other grazers needs to be factored in to your stocking rate decisions.

      My best advice is to stock low (say, 10ac./head) and see what happens. Keep in mind your location – mixedgrass prairie that “leans West” most years. In reality, there is no perfect stocking rate. However, a good stocking rate will help to take away the added work (and expen$e) of having to drop protein tubs across your pastures during the growing season. An abundance of protein tubs during the growing season is a sign of poor management (overgrazing), in my opinion. There are plenty of native grasses and forbs that can adequately furnish animal nutrition needs during the growing season. If you keep cattle during the off-season, that’s a different story (hay, cubes, etc.).

      There isn’t really a definitive answer as to what stocking rate is the best (aside from the obvious of low enough to avoid overgrazing). Like grasslands, stocking rates should be seen as dynamic and readily flexible.

All civil comments welcome.

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