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  • Ian Thompson

Be the Cow You Wish You Had

A wise person once pointed out a fact about life: change is the only thing that's constant. This wisdom applies to the land just as well as anything else. If you watch closely, every landscape, and particularly "wild" ones, are constantly changing. The cumulative effects of things like soil moisture, temperature, the types of species present, and disturbance history all interact on each other to determine what that landscape is going to look like any given month. A responsible land manager, be they an ecologist, forester, or farmer, has goals for what they want the land under their care to look like as well as a practical, adaptable plan for how to get it there. Constant change means that a given landscape is always either moving towards the goal or away from it. Stasis doesn't exist. Achieving a landscape management goal means getting things to a place where the interplay of all of the different factors keeps the constantly changing landscape within a desired range.

At Nan Awaya Farm, we're managing the 160 acres of land under our stewardship to be a place that supports a diverse mix of native plant and animal life - a place that resembles what this landscape looked like when it was shaped and managed by Indigenous communities previous to colonization. The earliest written account of what is now the central part of the Choctaw Nation Reservation comes from Thomas Nuttall, a botanist who came through here in 1819, more than a decade before the Trail of Tears (see our post). He described a landscape that was a mixture of small prairies, trees, and thickety brush. This was a landscape shaped by bison, whose trails and open grazing areas Nuttall frequently encountered as he walked across the land. This was a landscape that had been managed by the Caddo and their ancestors for thousands of years. With a horrific population loss suffered by Native communities as a result of European disease and colonial conflict, if anything, the landscape encountered by Nuttall was probably less intensively managed and less open than it had been through most of the past 10,000 years.

At Nan Awaya Farm, the lowlands are sandy seep, a rare local habitat that's like a wet meadow and a home to many rare plants and animals. On the other hand, we're trying to manage the uplands to be savanna: a mixture of tallgrass prairie with native trees and some brush. Like most things worthwhile, managing for these landscapes has proven to be harder than we initially understood, but the experiences are a tremendous opportunity to learn from the land.

We've shared posts about what we have learned from reintroducing bison to this landscape, about our evolving understanding of rotational grazing, about returning fire to the land, about managing sandy seep, and about collecting seeds from other local prairie remnants and planting them on our land. These efforts have brought some significant progress in returning the upland landscapes that we manage to being more like they were before colonization. However, Nan Awaya Farm also faces the steady march of another factor that constantly moves these landscapes away from our goal: the unrelenting expansion of brush.

North America's grasslands were shaped by soil types, climate, water, native grassland plants, and a landscape-wide cycle that began with range fire, followed by herds of bison moving in to graze the young grass shoots springing up after a burn, the bison staying to graze until the roots of the grasses were weakened allowing unpalatable wildflowers to take over, the bison moving on, grasses reestablishing their dominance in the absence of the bison, thatch build up, followed by fire in a repeating cycle. The landscape differed from season to season and year to year, but long-term conditions moved most trees out of these areas and grasslands thrived.

The conditions the kept the trees out have changed. Today, on most landscapes that once supported grasslands, fires are suppressed, grazing no longer happens in the same kind of long rotation that it once did, and invasive plants have been introduced. Most prairies have been destroyed by plowing, but even for those that survive, these factors mean that brushy plants like sumac, dogwood, persimmon, and especially red cedar, are constantly invading. Even those rare surviving prairies that are managed in the same way they were 200 years ago are in jeopardy because woody encroachment on nearby areas blankets them with the seeds of their own destruction. With lapse of management for just a few years the seeds from these brushy plants can germinate, get established, and change the balance to a landscape choked with brush.

To keep Nan Awaya Farm from becoming Brush Acres we've got to keep trees and vines from taking over the remnant prairie in the pastures. How do you do that? A lot of people remove encroaching brush by mowing their pastures. The problem is that, for most of the tree species invading the prairies, when you cut them down they come back with 8 new shoots. Let those grow up and you get an impenetrable thicket no one can walk through. Mowing the young trees down every year can result in a carpet of knee-high trees that doesn't do much good to anyone. To change the game to the point that the young trees would start disappearing, you have to mow them at least four times per year, which would also kill most of the native grassland plants and defeat the whole purpose. Many people use broadleaf herbicide to get rid of young trees out of pastures, but we're not about to do that. Goats eat young trees, but like mowing, if you graze hard enough to kill the woody plants, you'll also be killing out lots of beneficial grassland plants.

It's too bad there isn't some kind of animal that selectively munches back the young trees and vines we don't want, while leaving all of the grassland plants alone. Hmm... Buffalo don't eat trees... That's when a stroke of genius hit: we'll make ourselves into the tree-killing cows that we wish we had! These days, we go out with a pair of hand clippers and cut the invading young trees that are pinky size in diameter or bigger. Then, using a squirt bottle, we put a couple of drops of 100% Glyphosate on the freshly cut stems. I'd rather not use herbicide at all, but the reality is that without it, the clipped trees will just multiply and we'll lose the prairie. Limiting our use of herbicide to a couple of drops applied directly onto the stem has the most targeted impact with the least unintended consequences that we can possibly achieve.

We don't mess with any trees smaller than pinky diameter because it's just not efficient and because if they survive, they';; grow to treatable size soon enough. If we have a sapling growing up where we need some shade or if it's something rare or fruit-bearing, we just let it grow. I haven't heard of anyone using this technique before exactly, but it's actually pretty time efficient in established pastures. We have a number of 5-acre sized pastures where we stop the advance of brush with only a couple hours of work every couple of years. We have become the pasture-managing cows that we wished we owned!

The job is much harder in pastures that have already fully succumbed to brush. We've tried clearing these patches by hand, but it's just not practical from the standpoint of how much time it takes. The strategy that we've been trying out for the past few years is to hire professionals with a forestry mulcher. One of the operators who has cleared every kind of landscape from south Texas to Missouri actually commented that our brushy pastures are the most vine-choked place he's ever seen - great. In such a landscape, the mulcher can do in an hour what we could do in a week. Our goal isn't to turn everything to grass, but rather to rebuild a diverse, life-supporting landscape, of which native grassland makes up a significant component. We have the mulchers leave the more established trees alone, leave the most ecologically beneficial bushes and vines, and leave some patches of brush for cover. They mulch the rest to the ground.

In the seep, opening up the canopy provides a rush of growth for the grassy plants in the understory. With the occasional burn, this seems to be enough to keep the brush from taking back over. The mulched areas in the uplands are another story. They come back in weedy plants the first year. The second year, they come back in a proliferation of finger-diameter trees. We clip them out. This is more work than maintaining a grassy pasture - first you have to contend with all of the mulched trees re-sprouting with their many sprouts, then then you have to deal with all the tree seeds in the soil coming up because brush clearing has given them light to grow. Our hope is that eventually, this management will exhaust the seed bank and then we'll have to do less-intensive management. Of course, we also have mowing, grazing and (sometimes) burning as available tools when we need them.

It's a lot of work being a land-clearing cow, but it's more efficient than hand-clearing a piece of land from scratch and a lot better than spraying herbicide everywhere. While we beat back the brush, the grassland plants are getting a foothold. In the picture above, you can see the native grasses filling in between the wilted saplings. As long as the management keeps up, the conditions have changed back towards native grassland. Burns are challenging for us to pull off logistically, but we hope that as the landscapes of the farm get covered with more open prairie, fire can start to take on a larger role and clipping a smaller role. For now, though, the best strategy to help this land seems to be for us to be the brush-clearing cows that we wish we had. We don't mind.

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Apr 29

Had the privilege of visiting Nan Awaya last month. This work is invaluable.

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