Managing the Smaller Ranch

While it is a fact that most of us Texans or Texas-transplants cannot own a 10,000 acre spread, or a 1,000 acres for that matter, does not mean we cannot manage and enjoy what piece of this great State we are lucky enough to own. Whether you own 30 acres or 300, there are still things you can do to enhance productivity on your land. Smaller tracts easily make up 99% of Texas ranches and it is to those buyers/landowners that I direct this chapter.

Concerns you have as a small tract owner include neighbors of course, and habitat limitations, both size and diversity. Neighbors are always a major concern when assessing any property for purchase. Buying a ranch with bad neighbors is like marrying a slacker. Don’t buy the ranch thinking you can change the neighbors or “live with them”; their shortcoming will just grate over time and detract from your enjoyment of the new ranch, even more so if your ranch is small enough to hear them no matter where you are on your own place. If your primary reason for buying a ranch is deer hunting, you do not want to be in a subdivision of 5 acre or even 25 acre tracts. Sorry, regardless of what the salesman might say, hunting simply will not be “great” in this situation. For the true “ranch hunting” experience, whatever the species, you need to find the dream ranch, which I define as at least 100 acres adjoining a larger place with a low common fence. You can live with one small neighbor, but not three and certainly not four. One small neighbor can be high fenced out if over-hunting is a problem, two at the most. For deer hunters, high-fencing three sides or four makes you a deer pen, not the most enjoyable sport hunting scenario. It may take a bit longer and you may have to go a bit further afield to find a small tract with larger neighbors, but it can be done. Remember, too, if you become the “bad neighbor”, the larger ranch will eventually high fence you out, then you’re an outcast and your property has lost value. Work at being a good neighbor and don’t give them a reason to fence you out.

If your primary purpose for buying a ranch is to hunt deer, work to make your tract both inviting and secure. Make the center of the property a sanctuary for deer, avoiding traffic in the center, leaving the brush undisturbed, and add a bulk feeder; perhaps water if it’s reasonable. I prefer the Stand and Fill feeder from Texas Hunter or the Lamco tray feeder because both a low-maintenance.

That’s not to say a 300 acre block of guajillo is an ideal situation, as even guajillo is unpalatable at times and deer need forbs as part of a normal diet. Judicious clearing and/or manipulation of fields can provide these forbs, improving available native foodstuffs and better holding the deer in place. No matter what you do, short of high fencing, remember that normal range for a doe is 600 acres, for a buck, it can be 6,000 acres so best case is a large neighbor that does not mind “sharing” deer, and/or a wildlife management co-op. Such a co-op, made up of like-minded neighbors is a way for smaller landowners to manage for a common good. Texas Parks & Wildlife actively seeks to form these co-ops and will assist in forming the group and managing the assets.

If your primary purpose in buying a place is to fish, or hunt other species such as quail, hogs, or a migratory species; dove, duck, etc., then size is not as important. I bought my place for quail and while it certainly has limitations, if properly situated and managed, I believe you can have huntable quail on less than 500 acres. Turkey are travelers, so you may have problems on a small tract with bad neighbors, but if you can own the roost, you’re all set. Otherwise place a feeder or two on platforms, keep them filled and varmint-free and you should have the flock at least travel across your place.

Dove, duck, and fish of course require dependable water. In South Texas, this means a pond of at least one acre with a minimum of 8 feet of dependable water year ’round. This requirement can be easily met on 50 acres assuming a good watershed (or a big water well), and good water-retention soils. For duck, I like to have a sizeable portion of the pond extend over shallow flats that can be farmed for small grains then flooded. This requires a supplemental water source or timely rains. Dove do best with a margin of bare ground around the water source. If supplemented, fill the pond full in July and late Nature lower the level for you. If not, bring in cows mid-Summer and you’ll have your bare ground margin. Quail are more sensitive to habit manipulation and have fairly precise requirements. I discuss these in detail a bit later.
Your habitat requirements for all species in general, are simple; you need diversity. Some old field, some light brush, some heavier brush/trees, and accessible, dependable water. You need diversity to ensure a variety of foods are available throughout the year and because animals live on the “edge”, literally. Wild animals like to be close to good escape cover and will utilize your smaller tract more completely if you have a diversity of cover. Whatever you do, if management of any non-migratory wildlife species is important to you, do not manicure your property. Sure, mow the grass around the camp and a portion around the ponds, but leave it natural and keep the vegetation in turmoil by discing/burning/grazing periodically. A “rough” looking ranch is a productive ranch whereas a tidy ranch may be sterile. Specific percentages of cover/food vegetation types vary with species and should be researched individually. Excellent literature is available online both from TP&W as well as the Agrilife Extension Service.

With regards to “but what should I do on my place?”, rather than speak in hypotheticals, I believe I’ll just tell you what I did on my own small place and how I manage it. Certainly, what I do does not apply to every ranch, but my experiences on my little tract should at least point out areas where you need to ask questions.

I have been blessed with 124 acres in Medina Co. and think it may be a perfect size for me as I can walk the place in a couple of hours, but still find new aspects each time I go out. I manage for quail primarily, but have dove, deer, and turkey in huntable numbers as well. Management is for recreational hunting and wildlife observation by family and friends.

My soil is primarily a clay loam, not the sand I would have preferred, but it is only 3.5 miles from my home, so I accepted the trade-off. A plus of the soils is they all hold water well, so the ponds are fairly dependable. The land was in field 20 years ago and has some good-sized mesquite/Huisache regrowth. It was fenced into three pastures of 30, 30, and 65 acres, so I split the bigger one for a four pasture rotation. I purchased the place and added “city” water although it has three good ponds on it. With the new pasture configuration, I need city water in two of the four pastures. It adjoins a rural subdivision, so city water was readily available. If that had not been the case, I would have drilled a well or installed “wildlife guzzlers” in areas far from water.

I paid a pretty penny for power, and built a small shop/cabin on it. As mentioned, I manage primarily for quail/dove, although I welcome any wildlife that stumbles onto the place.

Bobwhite quail have a home range that varies with quality. An accepted management goal is one bird to the acre, so on 124 acres of perfect habitat, I could have 124 birds or about 8.8 coveys. If I “steal” birds from the neighbors who do not hunt, I can increase my population somewhat, so I broadcast feed along the perimeter starting in September. Additionally, I leave fence lines brushy, manage grazing so I always have not only adequate nesting cover, but good ground cover to reduce temperatures, and I do a lot of half-cutting to increase woody cover close to the ground. From the truck it looks wooded, but if you get down to a quail’s level, it is just trunks and grass. Half-cutting, combined with grazing and discing, increases cover at their level as well as food. This is important to increase usable space in old fields.

Because it was once all field, and planted in coastal Bermuda, I must have cows to reduce the grass cover and promote weeds. I split the big pasture because I want the cows to be focused on a relatively small area so they will uniformly graze all species of grass, but really hammer the Bermuda. Cows are stocked at a rate of 1 AU to 20 acres and only on the place for 90-120 days starting when quail nesting starts in late April. Assuming they have adequately grazed the Bermuda down, they leave in August which hopefully gives the grass time to recover enough to provide nesting cover for the next year. If they have not removed enough grass, I let them stay a bit longer, but nesting cover is critical to quail. I’d rather increase stocking for the 90 days than have them on for 120.

I shred random strips through the brush and disk those strips lightly in winter to encourage weeds. There is one spot near the larger pond that is fairly flat and devoid of regrowth. I plan to manage this 5 acres or so for native sunflower. Native sunflower is present on the place, and I think if I disk this patch in Dec.-Jan. I will get a decent stand. If that works, there are other spots that I can try.

Deer are a secondary management objective, and, as the property is low-fenced on three sides and too open for deer to “live” on the place, I installed a deer blind and two feeders near the center of the ranch for friends to hunt, (hint: never put a blind or feeder on the boundary). This works and we see deer even in my lighter brush. You can tell by the trails from neighboring, more heavily wooded neighbors where we are recruiting “our” deer from. I fill the feeders in a 1:5 milo to corn mix to further supplement quail, anchoring a covey or two, although my primary method for supplementing quail is broadcasting the milo off-road. I feel it is important to feed off-road to reduce exposure to predators.

After years of adapting feeders, Texas Hunter has come up with an offset for bumper receivers that has just the right angle. In truth, food is rarely limiting in wild quail populations but I do it mostly because it increases my chances of seeing the little guys.

Turkey are plentiful through no action on my part, and I have installed a feeder on a platform just to keep them close to the house for viewing. The largest of the three ponds could hold fish, but needs cleaning out. Problem is, it has never gone dry enough for equipment to work it. Traditionally, in an instance like this, you would go below the old dam and dig a new pond. However, proximity to the boundary precludes this in my case, so I’ll have to wait until it gets dry enough for a track-loader to work the edges. Being a clay soil, it would take a full year of no added water for it to get dry enough for a ‘dozer or scraper to get in there.
So, in a nutshell, that’s what I’ve done on my 124 acres. Certainly not the Ponderosa, but it suits my needs and has proven to be very productive. Depending on what you want your ranch to do, buying right and managing intelligently can be very rewarding and lots of fun.

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