Jeff Haley looks at the tiny sprigs of green poking up through the sandy earth and smiles. Big.
He has good reason to. A year ago, he stood near this spot while despair gripped his guts and tore at his heart. The scene then was starkly different — moonlike and surreal, with some t-posts and a few yucca stumps the only things sticking out of the scorched earth.
You see, last year he stood not far from here and wondered if he would ever recover from one of the largest wildfires in Texas history.
“The week after the fire, I thought it would be years before it ever came back,” he says. Five months after the fire, he still wasn't too sure. Then finally, in August, it rained. In December and January it snowed. A lot. And in the aftermath of that despair — fire and then ice — the land bloomed.
A perfect setup
The conditions for last year's fires were ideal, says Clint Rollins, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) rangeland management specialist in Amarillo. Years of drought in the late '90s and the early part of this decade were interrupted by an exceptionally wet period in 2005. Pastures responded by producing forage in quantity.
Then, as often happens in the High Plains, the water valve shut down tight. Winter 2005 and spring '06 were among the driest in recent memory. With no winter moisture to start the green-up, pastures withered under the high winds and low humidity that sucked what little life there was left out of the pastures.
When the first spark ignited on March 12, 2006, the heavy fuel load and winds up to 60 mph quickly turned a small brushfire into a headfire 20 miles across. Before it finished its course, the fires burned 726,000 acres, killed 2,000 cattle, and claimed the lives of 11 people, including one firefighter.
Effect on pastures
Haley ranches about 15,500 acres of eastern Texas Panhandle sand between McLean and Pampa. The native grasses are largely bluestems and grama — good, hard grasses that have adapted to the extremes of a harsh, dry environment. In less than 20 minutes the afternoon of March 12, 2006, roughly 90% of Haley's ranch was consumed by fire pushed by howling winds. Out of 500 mama cows, he lost 82, as well as 130 calves. Another 60-some cows were injured by the fire and had to be sold, as were any cows that lost calves.
With all but part of one pasture destroyed, Haley gathered the survivors and sent them to his brother's ranch in the Northeast Texas Panhandle near the town of Canadian and to a family ranch west of Midland. Haley and his brother ranch in partnership; to make room for the survivors, they leased pastures elsewhere for the healthy cattle on the Canadian ranch displaced by the burned-out cattle. “We wanted those damaged cows closer to home,” Haley says.
And then, he waited.
“We got a good, wet snow; it was melting as it fell, but probably a good 6 in. of wet snow and rain about a week after the fire,” he remembers. After that, nothing but a few scattered showers until August.
And then, like the High Plains are prone to do, the valve turned wide open, with 6-9 in. of rain sluicing across the largely barren land. Because the pastures had little vegetative cover, the rains washed a lot of country away, or at least any that was left after five months of wind.
But the rains also turned on the biological switch in the grass roots that slumbered beneath the surface. Those rains, Rollins says, put the grass into full-time reproductive mode, fooling many that the country was healed.
“It literally went into such a massive reproductive mode that it looked like an ocean of grass out there,” Rollins says. However, there was no forage. It was all seed stalk and seed head. “And we found out through testing that a lot of that seed was non-viable,” he adds.
Haley agrees. “It looks better driving along,” he admits. “If you get out and look down, you can see some dirt. It wasn't like that before.” According to Rollins, “From the standpoint of recovery, we're not there yet.”
Several miles east of the Haley Ranch, L.H. Webb went through a similar ordeal. He lost essentially all of his 10,000-acre yearling operation, along with around 180 yearlings out of 700 he had just received.
Like Haley, his pastures look better than they really are, with plenty of bare patches hiding beneath a crown of seed heads. “Somebody who didn't know what it looked like before and didn't see it after the fire wouldn't think anything is hurt here,” he says.
Until they see the trees. What bothers Webb as much as the loss of pastures is the loss of so many big, old trees that populated the creek beds and draws. The fire's intense heat didn't burn the trees down as much as it boiled the sap. You could see the bark explode off the trunks, he says, as the fire passed by.
Neither Webb nor Haley can predict when the pastures will fully recover. That timeline is up to Mother Nature and whether or not the country gets timely rains this spring and summer. But Rollins says ranchers can do a lot to help the process along.
“You've got to have moisture and deferment to get some recovery,” he says. “That's why we're so adamant about this second deferment period from May, June and July. Those are critical months to allow that grass to green up, shoot up a seed stalk and hopefully make some viable seed.”
Using Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds, NRCS paid burned-out ranchers $5/acre to defer grazing April 1 to Oct. 31 last year. They're repeating that program this year with a second deferment period of May 1 to July 31 to encourage grass managers to give pastures ample time to heal up and hair over.
About half (46%) of the landowners burned out by the fires are participating in both deferment periods. An additional 16% opted to defer last year but not this year, for a total of 62% of the burned acres receiving at least some deferment. The remainder elected to not take any deferment payment.
While Rollins understands why some ranchers can't stay off their country for two years in a row, he's afraid those who don't will have a much longer recovery time than those who do.
“If they start out moderately stocked (following the second deferment period) and kind of ease back in, it will be a blessing in disguise,” Rollins says, “if we can get through this and grow some grass. A bunch of them will wind up with more grazeable acres than they started with.”
That's because of a fire's rejuvenating effect on pastures. While a wildfire burns much hotter than a prescribed fire and therefore does more immediate damage, the long-term effects are similar.
“That's why I say one of the biggest benefits of this wildfire is removing all that rank growth off that little bluestem,” he says. “There will be a whole lot more available forage out there for the next 2-3 years. But it's going to take more than this year to get us back to where we want to be as far as the health and vigor in that plant community.”
Rollins predicts it will take another 2-3 years to get back to the vigorous, healthy leaf growth that should be present. “We'll be back by frost to a point where utilization can occur, but at a moderate rate.”
Haley is one of those ranchers who took advantage of both deferment payments. He also took advantage of a Farm Services Agency program to help pay for the cost of replacing his fences. The program prorates the replacement cost based on the age of the old fence. So, with 41 miles of perimeter and cross fences, Haley still spent a considerable sum getting himself in a position to be able to turn out this fall.
For now, Haley is contemplating his options come this fall. “I think cow prices are still pretty high,” he says. “Because of the drought, numbers really aren't building like we thought they would.”
He says yearlings can do fine on his ranch, and with ethanol-fueled corn prices keeping the market murky and encouraging more gain on grass before heading to the feedyard, he's contemplating a change from his traditional cow-calf operation.
“I'm wondering if we might just be better off running some yearlings for several years and building our cow numbers back with what we have, kind of growing back in. Cows will be cheaper in five years than they are today,” he says.
But for now, Haley and Webb are simply glad the grass is growing.
“Since before man was here, since before the Native Americans, there's been fire going through here,” Webb says. “All these plants have evolved with fire and drought, hard winters and hot summers. That's what God had planned. They've evolved with the extremes of the Panhandle weather and they can survive it.”