The 77 Ranch, owned and managed by Gary and Sue Price of Blooming Grove, Texas will host a tour for the PFC board at our upcoming winter meeting in Dallas, TX. Located about 50 miles south of Dallas, TX in a state that is adding 1,300 people per day, this native grassland cow-calf operation is fighting the tide of fragmentation by gradually increasing its footprint over time. The 2,600-acre 77 Ranch in the Blackland Prairie region is a leader in both sustainability and outreach to the urban populace, making the link between good land stewardship and clean water. “Everybody’s drinking water comes across somebody’s ranch somewhere—that means we play a vital role in a pretty big product,” explains Gary.

Gary and Sue are participants in the Water as a Crop initiative as well the Western Navarro Bobwhite Restoration InitiativeWater As A Crop® facilitates dialogue between landowners, local partners, and prospective water conservation funders in water-stressed areas. The Trinity River Basin of Texas, the source of water for 40% of the Texas population, is the program’s first demonstration project. Since the majority of rain falls on private lands in Texas, it follows that private land management is a critical component of both water quality and supply.

Agriculture as a Public Benefit

“The overall idea,” explains Gary, “is to show the downstream urban areas the value of keeping water clean and keeping silt out of the Richland-Chambers Reservoir”—the main water source for Tarrant Regional Water District, which supplies Fort Worth and 11 counties. In times gone by, managers of land throughout a watershed were not seen as a critical factor in water quality or quantity. As urban populations and demand for water have increased, the rising costs of water treatment have led to a broader perspective and the recognition that investments made by landowners in good stewardship and conservation benefit many different people.

In addition to water, agricultural lands supply a host of “ecosystem services,” which are functions that Mother Nature carries out in collaboration with good stewards of the land. In addition to water, these include services such as carbon sequestration, healthy soils, clean air, and a diversity of wildlife and plant species, to name a few. In other words, agriculture can be seen as a public benefit.

Through Water as a Crop, the 77 Ranch has expanded their already large circle of cooperators to include local partners and stakeholders interested in funding water conservation, including the MillerCoors brewery in Fort Worth! Financial incentives help to mitigate the costs of conservation practices such as cross fencing to enable planned rotational grazing (cattle on the 77 Ranch are moved to a new pasture about every four days depending on forage condition), replanting native prairie grass, and creating riparian buffer zones.

Water is not, of course, the Price’s only crop. They also produce high quality beef cattle, wildlife recreation opportunities such as fishing and waterfowl hunting, habitat for declining species such as Bobwhite through the restoration and careful management of native grassland prairies, and hands-on education programs for area school children and youth groups. Sue, a retired elementary school teacher, says, “I believe we need to share stewardship with younger people, and that’s why it’s important to us to open our gates.” Over the years, the Prices have also participated in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) National Water Quality Initiative, and they’ve been the recipients of innumerable national and state stewardship awards.

Being a Part of Building Something

What motivates landowners like the Prices to dedicate themselves to an expanding grassland operation in a rapidly developing region of Texas? They have added land as properties became available because “we knew we wanted to be part of building something, not tearing it apart,” says Gary. “It was a lot of hard work, but it worked out.”

Never were the benefits of careful stewardship more apparent than during the extreme Texas drought of 2011-12. Even though there was nothing green on the ranch, the Prices were able to avoid culling their herd, and they weaned all their calves on schedule. “Our grazing intensity is calculated to leave one-third of the grass for plant re-establishment, a third for trampling into the soil for organic matter, and a third to be eaten by cattle,” says Gary. “We have to have a good product to stay sustainable. Every piece of the puzzle fits together.”

Hmmm….that sounds a lot like someone else we all know, who said: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Sources for this post:
77 Ranch: Diversifying with Water As A Crop
Better water, better beef and better beer?
Can we start thinking of water as a crop?
Retain the Rain (p. 52 of Working Ranch, June/July 2017)