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Loving the Land at Laborcitas

2018 Leopold Award winners bring diversity back to this South Texas ranch.

By Justin Wood

For Laborcitas Creek Ranch owners Berdon and Rolanette Lawrence, the payoff of almost 30 years of land restoration has come in the form of beauty and birdsong.

I love hearing the quail — when they sing to each other it’s like a love song,” Rolanette says. “Every day the beauty changes. There’s something new — a new flower, a newborn fawn or just something moving through. Every day is different.”

blossom

The Lawrences began their love affair with this 16,000-acre plot of South Texas grassland in 1990, when they started leasing the land from the owners at the time. They purchased the land in 2001, officially setting in motion the restoration process that would in time turn the overgrazed piece of property into a thriving wildlife habitat and a leading example of private land conservation.

The Lawrences have worked alongside ranch manager David Kelly to return Laborcitas to its former glory while also adding new twists and features. It was the success of these efforts that led Laborcitas to receive the 2018 Aldo Leopold Award for Conservation at the 23rd annual Lone Star Land Steward Awards last May. The award, with a $10,000 prize, was presented by the Sand County Foundation in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

“It’s very gratifying to see the evolution of this property over the years,” says Kelly, who first arrived at Laborcitas Creek Ranch as a guest hunter in 1990 and accepted the position of ranch manager in 2009.

Much of the land that greeted the Lawrences in 1990 had been severely overgrazed after decades of dairy farming. It took several years and the removal of much of the ranch’s cattle just to bring the area back to a state that the wildlife could utilize.

“I can remember the first time I came down here,” Rolanette says of the ranch west of Falfurrias. “Because the property had been overgrazed, the deer were very small and their antlers were small. Now, over the years, we’ve made this a better place. The deer are bigger, healthy and thriving, along with all the birds and other wildlife.”

Kelly says that when he began his stint as ranch manager, he was forced to confront another growing problem — parts of the ranch were too densely populated with brush or were overrun with non-native plant life, much of which made it difficult for dove and other wildlife to establish a nest or find any type of shelter.

To counter this, Kelly, the Lawrences, field operations manager Benny Cantu and the Laborcitas field staff implemented a series of innovative brush control practices that have worked wonders for both plant and animal diversity.

Kelly’s targeted method for brush control is chemical spray, which he says is used primarily on small mesquite and silver leaf sunflower, two species that he says exist on the ranch for the sole purpose of “tormenting” the more beneficial plant life.

longhorn

“The mesquite will kill the grass because it blocks out the sun, so it can’t grow,” says Mack Jones, wildlife specialist at Laborcitas. “Once you open it up, stuff that’s good for the quail and deer to forage will come out.”

Among the most labor-intensive methods, as well as among the most visible (due to the perfectly square plot of disturbed soil often left in its wake), is the practice of disking, which takes place mainly in the winter months, December through February. The process involves breaking the ground, turning the soil over and allowing the desired plant, usually croton or goat weed, to grow back in place of the former brush. Kelly explained that the ground’s composition allows the grass to grow back surprisingly quickly.

“When we do that,” he says, “each plant has thousands of little seeds in it, and the birds, primarily the quail and the dove, just love it.”

The most famous brush control method at Laborcitas, a method that was invented on the ranch’s grounds, involves a vehicle named “the Quailerator.” Designed to imitate the grazing and hoof action of cattle, the Quailerator is a modified pasture aerator that employs longer-than-usual spikes with stops to keep the rolling drum from completely flattening the grass. Instead, it disturbs the soil only to the point that the new grass is allowed more space to grow, produce and thrive.

Substantial increases in quail, deer and dove populations have become the strongest indicators of the success of Laborcitas’ brush control efforts. The quail will be there regardless, Kelly tells me. The dove and deer are the ones that let you know you’re doing something right.

“For instance,” he says, “in 2000, the maximum trophy we would shoot might be a 125-inch deer; now we’re shooting them all the way up to 200. We’re getting some much better quality deer now, so the management program is really evident.”

Laborcitas deer management includes more than just brush control for better habitat. Another crucial part of Laborcitas’ wildlife habitat restoration process is a food and water production effort that, based on the numbers, has been a huge hit with the wildlife.

These efforts include the ranch’s 18 food plots, where crops (including millet and milo) are grown to feed the diverse and ever-growing population of birds; the gravity feeders, where the deer can enjoy protein pellets; and the various water structures around the ranch, including everything from small water holes for dove to massive waterfowl compounds, most of which are disked and shredded on the perimeter to promote food and cover for the animals.

The food plots, equipped with irrigation pivots, take up about 1,000 acres of the ranch, according to Kelly. During dry periods — and there are a lot of them — the quail rely even more heavily on the plots, surviving on the food supply that Laborcitas has labored to maintain.

pond

The waterfowl compounds, with water reflecting rays from the blazing South Texas sun back into a perfectly clear blue sky, are buzzing with activity. Jones, who has played a major role in developing and disking most of the compounds, says the ranch has seen everything from seabirds to puddle ducks flock in from across the state in the years since the habitats have been constructed.

The genesis of the waterfowl compounds and their eventual insertion into the ranch’s plans should come as no surprise, as Jones, like Kelly, first became close with Berdon Lawrence while duck hunting in East Texas and southwestern Louisiana. Later, while working together on the ranch, the three men agreed that with all the ducks that pass through South Texas, they might be able to attract some of the birds with a nice duck and waterfowl habitat. More than 10 compounds later, Laborcitas Creek is now home to thousands of ducks and other waterfowl every year.

Lack of consistent rainfall remains a challenge. Like the food plots and other water-dependent areas of the ranch, the waterfowl compounds are forced to rely on the extensive well water distribution system that the Laborcitas staff has installed. Central to this system are eight water reservoirs spread out across the ranch used essentially as holding tanks, though most of them also host small populations of fish. Collecting the water, however, is only half the job.

“We have probably about 100 miles of underground water pipe all over the ranch,” says Kelly, explaining that the pipes get the water from the reservoirs to wherever it’s needed.

Kelly says he is extremely proud of the staff at Laborcitas.

“The staff here is like family,” he says. “Everybody has been here a long time and has a specialty that they do. It really just works wonderfully.”

Rolanette Lawrence echoes this sentiment.

“One of the main reasons why the ranch has thrived,” she says, “is because we have this wonderful staff.”

kids

The ranch’s enhancements have been gaining notice. The quality of work, long-term commitment and resulting habitat improvement at Laborcitas have been recognized by multiple awards over the last several years and by the growing influence of the ranch’s practices, adopted by other properties across the state.

Berdon Lawrence has had a direct hand in this development. By helping introduce a wildlife exemption that gives tax credits to ranch owners who cultivate their property for wildlife (similar to a livestock exemption), he has helped make it more economically practical for other ranches to undertake their own conservation efforts.

Looking ahead, the Laborcitas staff is also doing their part to train the next generation of conservationists. Each year Laborcitas Creek hosts local 4H kids and puts on various activities to give them a glimpse of the work taking place across the ranch’s 16,000 acres. Jones notes that the kids especially enjoy the waterfowl habitats.

“We usually get in the water, because that’s what they like to do — they like to get wet,” he says.

Students at Texas A&M University–Kingsville are also taking advantage of the opportunities for research at Laborcitas.

“Students come out every year in the fall semester to study wildlife management, and that particular class has a lot to do with waterfowl,” Kelly says. “They go through most of the duck ponds to see what’s happening and what plant life is growing.”

While many of the transformations at Laborcitas have been brought about by humans, Kelly says that the staff gets the most satisfaction when that work enables nature to take the reins and evolve on its own. In fact, it’s the resurgence of Laborcitas Creek Ranch’s natural beauty that still gives Kelly the most pride, especially since he and the rest of the staff have had such a direct hand in guiding it along.

“It’s still wild and it’s still natural,” he says, “And that’s the way we like to keep it.”


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