Ahead of the Herd

By: Amos P. Eno
Posted on:10/01/2017 Updated:11/20/2017

Around the turn of the 20th century Ellis County, Texas was the largest cotton producing county in the United States.  This blackland prairie eco-region has fertile soils, where cotton farmers had “plowed up really everything they could,” according to rancher Gary Price. In 1976, he bought the first parcel of his approximately 2,500 acres 77 Ranch, in this area about 50 miles south of Dallas. At that time, one fourth of his land had been in old cotton fields, which he quickly worked to restore with the reseeding of native grasses and forbes. Since then, he has also acquired some of the rare unplowed native blackland prairies, of which less than one percent remain.

The transformation over the last 41 years has been remarkable. Through the intensive restoration efforts of Price’s family and many collaborating conservation agencies, formerly worn out farmland is now native grassland prairie capable of sustainably supporting 77 Ranch’s cow-calf operation and plentiful wildlife. In order to maintain a healthy balance between ecological and economic vitality on the prairie, 77 Ranch employs good grazing practices. “The most important factor in managing rangeland is stocking rate,” says Price. Every piece of land is different, he explains, so finding the carrying capacity of one’s parcel is the foundation of any sustainable management plan. They have become a model for other ranches in the area, and take time to educate those who “absolutely want to do the right thing.”

Additionally, wetlands on the property have been enhanced to improve habitat for the many birds such as mallards and pintails that migrate through the ranch along a major North American waterfowl flyway. And their upland wildlife habitat has proven bountiful enough that the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife is working on a project with them to reintroduce wild Bobwhite quail to the area. The effort starting with the release of 128 birds last October, when about 10 percent were equipped with radio transmitters. Price says biologists are beginning to trap more quail, which this time will have GPS collars to track their every movement, so biologists will be able to track their every movement and learn where they nest, raise their brood and more about the quails’ life cycles than they knew before.

The Prices have also been working with the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and MillerCoors, yes MillerCoors the beer behemoth, to improve water quality. It may seem like an odd match, but MillerCoors is the largest water user in Tarrant County, near Fort Worth, and it depends on access to clean water coming from private lands like 77 Ranch. In fact, on October 21st the ranch will host an event with Holistic Management International and MillerCoors entitled Wildlife, Cattle and Beer.

All of this work has garnered much deserved recognition. Over the years, 77 Ranch has received the Outstanding Rangeland Steward Award from the Texas Section Society for Range Management, the Leopold Conservation Award for Texas from the Sand County Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the 2012 Regional and National Environmental Stewardship Award Program from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

However, Price is not one to reflect long on the past. Currently, he’s collaborating on the development of a carbon sequestration project. Apparently the details are still under wraps, but I promise to report back when it’s unveiled.