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Cedar and other brush thickets used to an advantage.

Malcolm Beck

Grazing abuse caused most of the cedar thickets in the lower and more level lands. There have always been cedar trees in the steep rocky out crops where nature needed them. Not in the deeper soils the thick grass kept them smothered out. But, when we penned our domestic animals in pastures and allowed them to wipe out the best grasses, they then went after lesser and lesser forges until the soil started to become bare.

Nature never wants bare exposed soil. Bare soil is highly subject to erosion. That is why Nature lets the weedy, poison and thorny plants take over. Insects, and animals don't eat them, they are allowed to cover, protect and rebuild the soil. Cedar is one of these re-builder plants, if given enough time cedar will do it. However, we can speed up the process.

Seldom have ranchers had the opportunity to mulch marginal and poor pastureland as they have today. Junipers or cedars as most ranchers call them, cover over 3 million acres of Texas. In some locations so thick you can't ride a horse or walk through them. Their shade is so dense no other plant gets enough light to grow. Unless the annual rains comes in 3-inch showers or more, little if any water ever gets past their roots. The green needles and mulch of dead needles under the trees hold the first inch. Then the roots take the next half-inch or more.

In my own pastures I have never seen drought kill cedars. They have roots like a cactus. After a long dry spell the cedar get their share of the water first. It takes big rains to feed the aquifers or make the creeks flow in cedar thickets.

The junipers or cedars are immune to herbicides, which I consider a blessing. Other control methods must be found. Few, if any of our modern generation laborers know how to use a grubbing hoe, if they did; I doubt that minimum wage would get them to the pastures. Our only choice of control is mechanical.

Chopped up cedar branches and stumps make an excellent mulch. The whole tree, stump and all is acetic, the ph is around 5 and below. When chopped up and used as a mulch over the alkaline soil of the Edwards Plateau it quickly makes topsoil out of the caliches and lime stone they grew in.

Big machines called “cedar eaters” can chop large junipers, stump and all, right down to the soil and lay it out as beautiful mulch. These machines are large articulated, rubber-tired tractors equipped with big, heavy duty flail mowers that can reach high up in a tree and chop it right down to the ground.

These machines can work on some pretty steep grades and fairly rough terrain. They can snake around and between big rocks and/or desirable trees to be saved. Where the terrain is too steep or rough the cedars are best left alone. They are needed in those locations. They help decay rock into soil that can eventually erode into the lower and more level terrains to help build good pasture soils.

The Blueberry Juniper will not re-sprout from the stump like the Redberry and the One-Seeded junipers do. However, they can all pop up from seed. But the seedlings can easily be controlled with brush hogs or flail mowers on small farm tractors if shredded before they get too big. But, you may want to let them get big before shredding so you can create more mulch for soil protection, water saving and soil building.

Juniper is a high-energy wood and because of the low ph it makes very good mulch in the central Texas high ph soils. Because of it’s slow decay rate, the mulching affect lasts for years.

I have been visiting and watching some of the first cedar thicket pastures reclaimed with the Cedar Eaters. Within 12 to 16 weeks there were good stands of native grasses coming through the thinner spots of the mulch. The mulch protected the small grass plants from being tromped or eaten down until a good root was established. The mulch held the heavy rain in place; it soaked in instead of running off and eroding soil with it. The soil temperature under the mulch is cooler in hot weather and warmer in cool weather. I have found moisture under the mulch weeks after a rain while un-mulched soil, near by, was dry inches deep.

Within three years you could see a change in the soil under the thicker mulched (1 to 3 inch) spots. The soil was much darker. The white limestone was beginning to turn into soil. The top ¼ inch was dark brown but it slowly faded lighter and lighter to original white at about three inches. There were all types of micro and macro life forms living, eating, reproducing, dying and decaying under that energy rich protective cedar mulch cover. This will continue and continue to build fertile soil as long as the mulch lasts.

It is not cheap; in fact it is expensive to mulch down a cedar thicket. But, when all the benefits of grazing land re-claimed, soil saved and water saved for future use, not just for the rancher but near by cities that draw from the replenished aquifers, the cost can quickly be justified.

Mulched down cedar thickets may even be of greater value to the nearby communities than to the ranchers themselves. Costs of mulching should be divided proportionally.

Mesquite Brush:

Mesquite covers about 15 million acres of Texas. I never heard the old timers complaining about mesquite. My dad always looked forward to a good mesquite bean crop. Mesquite beans kept the horses and mules fat. My grandpa’s pasture was a small part post oak and the rest mesquite pasture. The post oak pasture was in a red soil, the trees were thick, no grass grew there but dad and grandpa both made some money cutting oak fire wood and shipping it to the big cities.

Mesquite land was considered better land for farming or pasture. I remember in their conversations often talking about “sorry post oak land and good mesquite land”. In early boyhood my favorite dove and rabbit hunting pastures were mesquite savannas with big mesquite trees spaced 50 to a 100 feet apart. There were a few bushes of different types and scattered clumps of prickle pare cactus that the cottontail and jack rabbits hid under. Ninety percent of the ground was covered with good forage grasses right up to and under the big mesquites. There was no mesquite brush in these pastures.

The Cedar Eater type machines do a good job of mulching up mesquite brush. Grind it low to the ground. When it sprouts back use a root plow or big disc plow to pull the stumps out by the roots. Mesquites are very persistent. If you don't do a good job of getting all the roots out the first try they come back with more, bigger and sharper thorns.

DO NOT poison or chop down the big mesquite trees. If you do, numerous small mesquites will sprout up in their place. Old timers told me about this and I have seen it happen but didn't know the cause. Modern science has now un-covered Natures secrets of how this works. The big trees give off some substance in the soil that keeps the mesquite beans from sprouting. If the big trees are destroyed this substance is no longer produced. Also, when big mesquites are chopped down buds from the remaining tree roots will also sprout up.

A naturalist once told me mesquite roots go very deep. A mesquite tree may pump up more water than it uses. Many times while resting in the light but cool shade I noticed the good forage grass under the canopy of big mesquites is as good and sometimes better than out in the open. Mesquites as cedars in their right place are beautiful, productive and beneficial as is every other creation in Nature.

Mulching brush and trees is much preferred over piling and burning. Burning destroys the soil building, soil protecting and water collecting mulch. Burning causes the carbon and nitrogen and other elements in the wood to go up and pollute the atmosphere. The atmosphere is already overloaded with CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

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last updated:  February 9, 2004