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Water Heroes: How Deborah & Emry use cattle to heal the land

To move 5,000 head of cattle at all is no small feat. At the Birdwell & Clark Ranch, it happens four to six times every day – all at the hands of just one or two people.

Emry Birdwell and Deborah Clark practice a managed grazing plan called holistic management, which differs from traditional operations in its intense attention to the health of the full ecosystem. While theirs is a cattle ranch in practice and theory, walking through the property’s tall grasses feels more like hiking through a wildlife preserve; Texas horned lizards scurry away from sight, herons stretch their necks, and pollinators frolic through the scores of plantlife. Coveted bobwhite quail populations prosper alongside the massive herd of cattle.

A Texas horned lizard (or "horny toad") at the Birdwell & Clark Ranch. These lizards, once common across Texas, are a rarer find these days.

A Texas horned lizard (or “horny toad”) at the Birdwell & Clark Ranch. These lizards, once common across Texas, are a rarer find these days.

While Deborah and Emry insist they inherited an already-good ranch and got a lot of help from Mother Nature, there isn’t any doubt that their flourishing North Texas property owes its abundance to the couple’s thoughtful land management practices. Since studying under world-renowned biologist and rancher Allan Savory, Emry has emphasized grazing plans that give the grasses plenty of time – anywhere from 50 to 120 days – to recover between grazing periods.

The result is a healthy and harmonious relationship between soil, vegetation, and water. Traditionally muddy and dark ponds on the property are now clear, with wildlife tucked along their banks. Their ranch is living proof that livestock management can change watershed health.

The Birdwell & Clark Ranch’s successes have not gone unnoticed. The ranch gives educational tours to visitors from all over the world, and this month the duo will be recognized by Texas Parks and Wildlife as Lone Star Land Stewards. To celebrate the recognition, we’re sharing a Q&A with Deborah Clark from our team’s visit to the ranch.

Deborah Clark overlooks her ranchland, which she and her husband have transformed using holistic land management practices.

Deborah Clark overlooks her ranchland, which she and her husband have transformed using holistic land management practices.

Texas Living Waters (TLW): Your ranch uses holistic management practices. Tell us what that actually looks like in practice on your land.

Deborah Clark (DC): It seems hard for people to believe, but we take our one herd that’s usually around 5,000, plus or minus, and we move them four to six times a day, depending on the quality of the forage and the size of the paddock. We use every foot of this ranch. It’s vital in terms of this grazing plan that we do, because a part of what is core of the grazing plan is recovery for the grasses. You don’t want to get back too soon and overgraze the plants that the cattle have already been feeding on.

TLW: One thing that’s really striking about your work is the demonstrated connection between soil health and water. Can you tell us more about that?

DC: Some of the benefits that we’ve seen from the type of plant grazing that we do are first and foremost in the diversity of the grasses and the forbs, and the fact that we’ve covered up acres and acres of bare ground. The benefits that come out of that, or that are inherent in that, is that we know we’re capturing water.

I don’t want one drop of the rain that falls on this ranch to roll off into my neighbor’s ranch. We tease about that. We are trying to capture every drop of rain that’s here. As a result of being able to cover the land and stop that erosion, and increase infiltration, we’ve seen some of our red, muddy water tanks, or ponds, turn into clear water tanks and ponds.

We know what we’re doing in those riparian areas is now we have grasses that are growing all the way down to the water’s edge, even if it’s a seasonal draw. So now the water that does fall and goes into those riparian areas is being filtered – truly filtered. To me that’s just a wonderful thing to understand, that you’re keeping all the dirt and soil on your land and at the same time you’re acting as a filter for the rainfall.

A riparian area at the Birdwell & Clark Ranch with flourishing vegetation.

A riparian area at the Birdwell & Clark Ranch with flourishing vegetation.

TLW: What about the benefits for wildlife?

DC: Our goal here has been to improve wildlife habitat for all of the species that are here – deer, turkey – but we really love those bobwhite quail. Some things that we’ve done, we’ve worked with the Texas quail index. We’ve participated in that. We have participated with University of North Texas in their quail research program. One of the specific things we did was to defer nesting areas in our grazing plan.  In two years, the University of North Texas documented that we had about a 450 percent increase in our quail populations.

TLW: What’s it been like, being able to share your knowledge and results with other ranchers?

DC: We have an open door policy, and that’s in our mission statement: that we share our resources, and we share what we learn. And we’re learning a tremendous amount here in terms of the benefits of high density planned grazing. The benefits on the land and the soil health, and the benefits on our wildlife habitat.

We had a group from Holland in this year… We’ve had a group of venture capitalists. We’ve had some folks that are really looking at scale, and how to build up in the grass-finished business, how to build it up so that the numbers are really worthwhile and can meet the new trending demand. So they came here to see how we run this operation with three people and 5,000 head of cattle, and move them four to six times a day.

Emry Birdwell rests a beat after moving the ranch's 5,000-head herd from one paddock to another.

Emry Birdwell rests a beat after moving the ranch’s 5,000-head herd from one paddock to another.

TLW: When you bought this ranch 13 years ago, what did you envision?

DC: In those early years, what we wanted to do was to try to make it where it’s feasible for the next generation to buy property. You can’t buy a property and ranch of this size and pay for it with a cattle operation. So our goal was, how do you make that available for the next generation? Not only did we want to be profitable, but how could you do that?

You do that by being able to increase your pounds per acre. Well how do you increase your pounds per acre? That’ll get us down into the weeds with the grazing management we do, but the whole notion was that we could raise more beef on the same amount of land, all the time improving the rangeland conditions and soil health. The one thing we wanted to do was all that bare land that was on this ranch, we wanted it to heal.

Lizzie Jespersen
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Lizzie Jespersen

Communications and outreach manager at National Wildlife Federation
Lizzie develops and implements strategies for reaching new audiences and engaging Texans in the Texas Living Waters mission. Lizzie is constantly plotting how to spend more time outdoors, and usually does so through photography, rock climbing, hiking or fly fishing.
Lizzie Jespersen
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1 Comment

  • Sheila Brown

    We need more land owners to consider innovative ways to improve the land for humans and wildlife.

    Ecosystem Regeneration Artisans have you read this?

    May 11, 2018 at 7:13 pm

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