It's not a rare experience for Will and Joan Senn to see antelope, whitetail deer and muledeer, doves, quail, and turkeys almost any day at their Covered S Ranch near Justiceburg, Texas.
It's a big change from their former life in Atlanta, Ga., where Will was a businessman. He and Joan are now living their dream as ranch owners.
Senn, a Georgia resident for 35 years, wanted to come to West Texas following his retirement. “This place has everything I'm interested in,” he says. He had always envisioned owning a cattle ranch and horse farm in Texas.
They purchased the Scurry County ranch in 1997 and made it their permanent residence three years ago, investing a lot of time and money to maintain a traditional cattle operation, while diversifying with wildlife.
The Senns have been passionate about restoring the ranch to its native condition. Initially, they focused on re-establishing and restoring the ranch from over-grazing, decreased soil and water quality and decreased wildlife habitat. They absorbed most of the cost for the conservation practices.
They started in 1998 with brush control measures where mesquite trees had invaded the land. Will purchased an excavator and started grubbing, raking, and piling brush on 1,450 acres.
He contacted the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) about technical assistance and conservation programs that would apply to his operation.
Kevin Wright, NRCS district conservationist in Snyder, recommended the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) as the most practical conservation program for Senn's situation.
Wright helped prepare a conservation plan to grub and rake the land. Senn was approved for a WHIP contract with 50 percent cost-share for grubbing practices on 526 acres.
“Any kind of assistance helps, and it was a helping hand for something I was already doing. I appreciate the assistance,” Senn says.
“The WHIP program is a management plan of your natural resources,” Wright notes. “ In our efforts to accommodate the wildlife species on this ranch, we made sure a conservation plan included all the natural resources on the ranch and provided enough open country for wildlife. It all pertains to the needs and capabilities of the land, and the landowner's objectives.”
Senn's deer populations are already taking advantage of brush control and brush sculpting.
“Muledeer are a rough country species, and by leaving enough cover in the lower areas, they utilize the land and come into the open ground,” Senn says. The ideal habitat for the deer also benefits cattle — brush strips provide wind protection in the winter and the cattle also use trees and brush for shade.
Senn's brush management also improves the possibility of conserving moisture from rain to help restore historic springs on the ranch.
“We've experienced a long drought here for some time, but with future rains, I hope ground moisture will increase.”
Other wildlife species benefit from seasonally-introduced plants desirable for food and cover. Quail populations have increased dramatically with lote bushes, tasijillo, skunk bush, and the remaining mesquite trees for protection and cover.
“Wright has helped with technical assistance for overseeding grasses and forbs for fall and spring, and choosing plant varieties that provide the best food,” says Senn.
He's considering overseeding with forbs, such as plateau bush sunflower, to benefit quail and antelope in late winter. Forbs also furnish quail with nutritious, high protein forage in fall and spring.
Wright based recommendations on several factors: land topography, soil types, available moisture, and objectives for cows/calves and wildlife.
He determined the soil types and reviewed the topography and suggested plant species to provide wildlife and cattle needs.
Senn also needed to replace cool season grasses with warm season options. “Kevin's knowledge has been helpful,” he says. “He's made recommendations and determined what I might consider in the long-term.”
Senn bases his ranching operation on principles of proper range management, balancing animal forage demand with forage supply. This balance is necessary for animal production and health of the forage resources and habitat. He uses techniques that monitor forage supply to make informed decisions that will sustain productivity.
He's seen an increase in native vegetation and improved wildlife habitat.
Senn continues to add to his to-do list for the ranch. “This is just the beginning of what I would like to see done.”
He and ranch manager Leddy Lewis are dedicated to conservation practices that benefit the ranch. They hope to combine a sustainable beef operation with increased wildlife habitat and bring about a balance between forage and cover.
Senn credits NRCS with success in restoration of native vegetation and brush control measures on 24,000 acres. His long-range objectives depend on the needs of cattle or specific wildlife species.
The visual affects of the Covered S Ranch are noticeable because of conservation practices. Clean fence lines and open country dominate an area that was overgrown with heavy mesquites and cedar. The Senns' dream now includes a working cattle that features good wildlife habitat and a unique West Texas aesthetic beauty.