Conservation makes sound economic sense to Kirk Michaux. Removing vines, brush and other vegetation from streambeds provides better opportunities for rotational grazing on the Solana Ranch, a 9,000-acre spread in the scenic Texas Hill Country, near the quaint, picturesque town of Salado.
Getting rid of prickly pear cactus and cedar also improves grazing for the registered cattle he runs on contract and for the abundant wildlife that attracts hunters (looking for trophy deer, wild turkey, doves, hogs and a few exotic species) from all over the country. Perhaps more important, however, conservation is a labor of love for Michaux, who took over management of Solana Ranch about 15 years ago and has spent much of that time improving the property.
“Our mission statement and overall goal is to break even or make a little profit, but also to conserve the land and improve it every year. We want to leave it better than we found it,” Michaux says.
“It's more than a dollars and cents issue. Keeping it all together is tough at times.” He says it's especially difficult with the increasing pressure of urban sprawl. Salado is less than an hour's drive from Austin. “We're fending off urban expansion.”
He says the property was somewhat rundown 15 years ago, when he took over full-time management and moved from Austin into the sprawling ranch house that commands a scenic view of pastureland and forested hills.
“I started coming out one or two days a week, then I got to three and finally decided I needed to be here full-time,” he says.
He's spent a lot of those years cleaning out cedar and cactus, improving pastures and restoring stream flow. He worked with the old Soil Conservation Service for years and now uses the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) to help improve the ranch. He says EQIP funds provide incentive to tackle big projects. “And the capable NRCS staff helps with the paperwork and explains our responsibilities with the contracts.”
He says EQIP has been a significant benefit with riparian improvements. “Other programs would require that we fence off water sources or divert land into a Conservation Reserve Program. Fencing is expensive and would limit access for cattle.” With an EQIP contract, Michaux removed brush from a vegetation-choked creek. “Water began flowing again.”
“The stream had all but dried up,” says Ray Sisneros, District Conservationist with the Bell County NRCS, “A year later it was free flowing.”
Michaux had to remove a lot of brush and vines from the streambed. “It was a lot of hard work and took a lot of cutting by hand labor. A limited amount of Bobcat equipment made it a little easier.”
One EQIP project took six to eight weeks to complete “with a lot of people working on it. It looks like a park now compared to how it looked before.” He says routine maintenance will keep the creek flowing.
Opening up that stream gives him options for the estimated 415 head of cattle he runs. “Cattle use the creek for a water source. Now, every pasture but one on the ranch has running water. That project was a great success. We now utilize all our pastures and rotate grazing much more effectively. We're very cognizant about preventing over-grazing.”
The ranch has 18 active springs feeding the four creeks.
He's continually pursuing cedar and cactus removal. “We have a couple of varieties of cedar and a lot of prickly pear cactus.”
Taking out those invasive species helps open up grazing areas. He worked with NRCS in 2004 on a controlled burn to take out cactus and cedar. “We had an uncontrolled burn this year. A truck caught on fire and 20 to 30-mile per hour winds took it over about 500 acres.”
He says a controlled burn is one of the most effective and economical methods of removing cedar and cactus but conditions have to be near perfect.
“We have to have heavy forage cover,” Sisneros says “to provide ample fuel to burn the cedar and cactus.”
Michaux says some years are too wet, others too dry. He's currently under a months-long drought that prevents an effective burn this year. “It's feast or famine,” he says. “Last spring we had floods.”
They're using bulldozers to push up cedars, leaving oak and other more desirable vegetation for wildlife cover.
“Our goal is to keep improving this property,” he says. “We have to keep the cedar and cactus under control. Cactus is a real problem; it's difficult to manage. Even with burns, it comes back.”
They use roller/crushers to destroy cactus plants. “We try to keep it shredded,” he says. “The system is a slow process. And it's hard to find contractors to do it.”
He's moved from a program with the old SCS that focused on adding improved grasses to the ranch to one that encourages native species. “Getting rid of the cedar and cactus helps accomplish that.”
“We're trying to help Kirk bring the land back to its capabilities,” Sisneros says.
This program pays off. “We see significant cost benefits,” Michaux says. “We have more water and we have better grazing.”
Michaux has other dilemmas.
He maintains a herd of registered cattle, on contract. “We no longer own cattle,” he says, “but take care of other owners' animals and get paid by the head. It works out for us with less risk and works out for the owners who have limited pasture.”
He also manages the ranch for wildlife. “Our objective is to run a cattle and wildlife operation successfully,” he says. “We have to be extra careful not to overgraze. We tried to fence in food plots once, but that did not work.”
He says the ranch has a good population of whitetail deer, turkeys and wild hogs. He has regular clients who hunt doves every fall. He's also looking at improving quail populations.
The ranch has about 800 acres under cultivation, producing grain for wildlife feeders and sunflowers for dove fields.
Solana Ranch is a unique property. Michaux's father, a geologist and oilman back in the 1950's, bought the land after significant research in the Hill Country. “We have two or three different geological classes, from blackland prairie, to hill country, to hill country with soil,” Michaux says. “We're on the edge of the Edwards Escarpment and the ranch changes rapidly in elevation from 200 feet to 300 feet.”
His dad bought the property in the “oil heyday and started on a lot of improvements. At that time, he could write off improvements against income. We can't do that now.”
He says his father determined that the property offered several significant advantages over other ranches. “It's in a good location. It has the combination of blackland prairie, hill country and hill country with soil. The elevation changes and ample water are significant advantages.”
Near-pristine creeks meander throughout the ranch, some with a backdrop of limestone cliffs; others run through tree-lined valleys. Natural springs fill stock tanks. Wooded hills drop into improved green meadows where cattle and wildlife graze. Blue herons prowl the shallows of stock tanks and creeks searching for unfortunate minnows. Michaux also points out several unusual species of trees and wildflowers and says Native Americans once roamed the property.
He's currently rebuilding roads and dams washed out by a June 2007 flood. Some dams on the property date back to CCC projects. Most are in good repair.
“One of our biggest problems now is that the area is becoming a bedroom community for Austin,” Michaux says. “I can drive from the ranch to West Austin in 43 minutes.”
He says a building boom and active rock quarries are also concerns.
Along with keeping the ranch productive for wildlife and cattle, he faces the threat of urban sprawl as he works with NRCS to preserve and enhance the property.