Ranchers’ Hope: Hardier Seeds to Combat Draught

Scientists are experimenting with seeds to reinvigorate lands damaged by drought and overgrazing.

Ranchers from the southwest and Mexico are gathering in the high desert of west Texas to review results of an experiment to raise hardy seeds that can flourish. Their biggest challenge is a harsh, demanding landscape.

“My world is a million little paper bags of seed,” says Colin Shackelford, a research associate at Texas Native Seeds, a restoration project founded at Texas A & M University.

Shackelford gives ranchers a tour of an experimental plot of grass seedlings, pointing out bird’s eye blue groma, a grass loaded with nutrition for cattle. But between drought and overgrazing, the plant is under stress in ranches across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

After two years, Shackelford’s seedlings have had mixed results. Of multiple species under study, several have taken hold in the desert. Shackelford hopes to kick off a sustainable, virtuous cycle that cuts the cost of seeds. Yet a harsh climate and sparse rainfall may hinder his efforts.

“What we’re doing is trying to do is take some of the risk out of it. We can’t control the rainfall,” he says. “But hopefully what we can do is take some of the uncertainty out of seed quality.”

Chris Blackwell, of the Borderlands Research Institute at Sul Ross State University, says the problem is “the shortage of dependable, available seed at a lower price point. As more of those plants become available, it’s going to pave the way for opportunity for landowners, for the oil and gas sector.”

That’s because every time a well ends its life cycle, grass is needed to restore the well site. Rancher Nick Garza from Sonora, Texas says the healthy state of oil and gas business presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reclaim barren earth.

“We certainly have the technology to do it,” says Garza. “And with the increase in oil and gas activity, we’ve got the money to do it. So it’s kinda the perfect opportunity to do some of this right now.”

According to Will Jewett, a soil conservation technician at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reclaiming barren earth creates “good forage for cattle” and an opportunity for ranchers to realize increased profits.

But Carlos Ortega, an agronomist at the University of Chihuahua and a longtime rancher, notes the work underway won’t translate into results for Mexico without that crucial catalyst called cash.

“We need to make a partnership with the people here to find the way to get the money and apply it to ranches over there,” says Ortega.

Researchers at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Colorado, which operates on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, have observed vast improvement on the O2 ranch, about an hour south of Alpine, Texas.

This piece of land, which was once barren, is now most healthy, diverse grassland they have seen in the southwest. Fifteen years ago, the land was barren.

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon, in collaboration with Fronteras, The Changing America Desk, a consortium of NPR member stations in the Southwest.

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon, in collaboration with Fronteras, The Changing America Desk, a consortium of NPR member stations in the Southwest.

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