Oh bovine, where art thou?

Oct 29, 2010
by WLJ

Mesquite has been a veritable “thorn in the side” of Texas cowboys as they claw, tear or bust through the thorny mazes. Along with cedar, it could be said that mesquite is the brush that cowboys “love to hate.” The past three months of cow works, there has been ample opportunity for these same West Texas cowboys to vent their frustrations and anger towards another “scourge of the rangelands.” That would be the glorious sunflower with all of its 8- to 12-foot-tall stalks.

Lately, motorists travel through the West Texas region admiring the spans of beautiful yellow and black six-inch diameter sunflowers. But unbeknownst to motorists, there could have been a crew of cowboys in those sunflowers trying to locate cattle lost in the floral jungle.

In coffee shops, saddle houses or at the wagon, conversation includes the “Sunflower Population of 2010.”

“The last bad year for sunflowers in our part of the state was 1986,” says Steve Drennan of the King County Soil and Water Conservation District. “Seeds can lay dormant for 10 years, and it just takes the right combination of conditions for sunflowers to take over. We’ve had one of the consistently wettest winter, spring and summer seasons in years. When the heat of the summer began drying things up, we’d get a timely rain, never being plant stressed from the first of July through September. Our entire growing season this year has had an advantage.”

Drennan explains that the actual contributing factor to years with abundant sunflowers goes back to overgrazing in the 1930s when the seed source arrived. After a drought, there is always an increase in weeds and a decrease in native grasses. Sunflowers were not abundant. Although brush control may not be a key player in propagation, anything disrupting soil, such as erosion, grubbing and overgrazing, can contribute to their overgrowth.

Natural soil type for this plant is found in sandy and sandy-loam pastures. With 6- to 8-inch tap roots, sunflowers can also take up water, hurting the grass. Normally found in wet bottomlands, “This year, sunflowers are in bottom lands, uplands ... any lands!” Drennan adds, “Most ranchers I know have been affected by the overgrowth of sunflowers.”

Ed Murray, DVM, of Spur, TX, is a Superior Livestock representative. “I’ve seen pastures thick with sunflowers from the Panhandle down to Ozona. They start playing out when it gets rocky. Thickets have affected a few deliveries when the cattle spill and head back to the sunflowers. The cattle know what the deal is!” Murray has practiced in West Texas more than 40 years. “I remember palpating cows having to chop down 15-foot sunflowers in the chute. You couldn’t see the cowboys horseback. The biggest veterinary problem for livestock we are seeing this year comes from horses stepping on stalks, penetrating their soles and winding up with foot abscesses.”

How does the scene play out when trying to gather cattle in a sunflower thicket? Gentle cows may stop, hide or just lay down. Cowboys may ride past cows, never seeing them. Now take a spoiled cow. They hear the rustling stalks and can’t differentiate between the racket coming from a cowboy versus a cow in the sunflowers. It’s just racket to a cow.

They can’t see cowboys; cowboys can’t see them. Cows may run off leaving the thicket hearing the commotion they create, making them more fractious. The more racket they make, the faster they go. The faster they go, the more scared they get. Can be a viscous cycle ... or they may just lie down. Oh bovine, where art thou? It might take a crew of 10-plus men riding stirrup to stirrup to get them gathered.

The historic 165,000-acre Pitchfork Ranch gathers some of their cattle in canyons, arroyos and cedar breaks. General manager Ron Lane says, “We have a lot of rough country. The sunflowers have added a degree of difficulty to our fall works. There could be 300 acres on a flat that are solid sunflowers. It certainly has made things more challenging. We used a helicopter a few days to spot some cattle.” Lane’s target date for completion of the fall works has always been to have 90-plus percent of their cattle on the first gather, then pick up remnant. “This year, we’ve been behind that target and our work load doubled. Currently, our big push is to get our steers gathered to put on wheat ...”

To add injury to insult, Lane says, “The health problems of our cattle have a real issue. We truck cattle to our feedlot and are treating a lot of foot rot in those cattle that likely begin with abrasions received from stalks. We don’t have those same problems at the feedlot in years without sunflowers.”

Pitchfork wagon boss Cody Taylor describes other health issues, saying, “We’re doctoring lots of eyes, mainly in steers, from seeds causing ulcers. There are a few blind calves that received punctures to eyes. Our saddle horses get sores between their legs from the stalks.”

Taylor says sunflowers are like a “double whammy.” “We don’t have the luxury of having mainly open country. Sunflowers started giving us problems in August. You can’t see the cattle through the stalks. We had to make changes in how we normally gather this ranch, working smaller pastures and going back to pastures we’ve already worked using more day help and neighbors. There’s still remnant cattle to be found that we missed due to the sunflowers.”

A light at the end of the tunnel? Sunflowers are turning brown, losing leaves and petals, and making it easier to see through thickets. Taylor’s waiting for that first frost when stalks start breaking over at the ground. “We love the moisture, but I hope the same amount comes in a different time frame where we don’t have to deal with sunflowers next year.”

With the great rains West Texas had this year, so came the problems with the sunflower thickets. And for those out there in the thickets, the problems stretched way past seeds in eyes, noses, and boot tops, etc. Not only did a cow puncher have the opportunity to “bust through the brush,” but the nature of the awesome rains also gave cowboys a chance to “dodge daisies,” or “mosey through the posies.” Still, a rancher never wants to cuss the rain. Tomorrow may be the first day of a drought. — Ginger Elliott, WLJ Correspondent