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New Adjunct Research Associate, Dr. Sula Vanderplank

The Institute of Ranch Management is excited to announce renowned field botanist, Dr. Sula E. Vanderplank, as the newly appointed Adjunct Research Associate.  Dr. Vanderplank, from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, specializes in biological hotspots and has contributed her botanical diversity expertise to many international conservation projects.  The Institute is looking forward to her future contributions to various programs and a continued partnership with the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.  Prior to her appointment, Dr. Vanderplank assisted the Institute with the Novo Santo Antonio Project in Brazil.

Click the links to find more information about the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and the Novo Santo Antonio Project.

The following is an article that Dr. Vanderplank wrote after accompanying the Institute of Ranch Management to Brazil. 

A visit to the Brazilian ranching frontier

Farley, Vaugh, Jacinto and Vanderplank
Texas Christian University, Institute for Ranch Management
Botanical Research Institute of Texas
Alianca da Terra

Our team consisted of a professor from the TCU Institute of Ranch Management (Chris Farley), a Range Management Specialist from Texas (Michael Vaughn), a dairy specialist from Brazil (Lilian Jacinto) and a researcher from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (Sula Vanderplank).  We went to visit a series of small producers on the Brazilian agricultural frontier, in the state of Mato Grosso.  We were hosted by the ground-breaking local coalition ‘Alianҫa da Terra’ (founded by John Cain Carter, a TCU alumni), which works to improve the sustainability and efficiency of ranches of all sizes throughout the region.  Over the course of two weeks we visited twenty ranches in one of the regions that has been most recently settled by cattle ranchers, on the edge of the rainforest to flooded savannah transition.  Our goal is to work with the community to raise their production and sustainability over the next 2-5 years.

Addressing the conservation situation in the great Amazonian rainforest of Brazil, one first has to see reality.  The forests are on fire, monocultures of African grasses extend as far as the eye can see, and some very sweet and determined people will do anything to make their ranch work and keep their family together.  In recent years all producers in this region have fought fierce battles to protect themselves and their homesteads.  Piracy, invasion, intimidation, and arson have plagued the frontier as bandits seek to drive others from their homes.  The conservation result is a disaster.  Even the best laid plans for conserving percentages of forest are scuppered by illegal fires, and the local terrorism results in set-aside being an isolated island in the middle of the ranch, not as a fire-break as I first suspected, but to enable vigilance and protection and avoid invasion.  The frontier is a battleground that has had limited policing, limited resources, and limited access to information about how to start a new ranch.  We are left with a fragmented landscape, poorly understood and often forgotten.  This agricultural frontier lies on a biological ecotone between the rainforest itself and the ‘cerrado’, a seasonally inundated tropical forest with smaller trees and more testing conditions for agriculture.

First we had a lot to learn from the locals.  A series of interviews made it very clear – while slash and burn agriculture was the norm in the past, people want to put down roots.  They want to make their ranches productive and raise their families on the ranch.  They want to make enough money to have their wives and children join them on the ranch.  Their desires aren’t just reasonable, they are a step towards a more sustainable future.  If we can help these people increase their productivity and sustainability, we can simultaneously improve their future and the outlook for biodiversity conservation in this controversial region.

Good cattle need good pasture.  We soon learnt that a limited suite of pasture species are being used in this area, making the pastures susceptible to plagues and events like drought or flooding.  There are many challenges to ranching in this region because it is so remote.  Many ranches are 18 hours drive from the nearest town, which means that the import of resources such as lime is cost prohibitive and soil remediation has been almost impossible.  As such, African grasses have coped the best with the poor soils, and few species have been viable. The genus Brachiaria is native to Africa and often widespread.  In its native environment in Angola, B. brizantha grows on termite mounds and in the ecotone between grassland and woodland habitat, similarly here in Brazil it is does well on higher ground in termite country. In upland areas, Brachiaria brizantha and Massai (a Panicum  hybrid) have been the staple forages planted.  Massai is softer, better for young cows, sick cows, milk cows, horses, etc; but it’s expensive to sow. Brachiaria brizantha (Brachiaraú) appears to respond well to burning AFTER the rains, but over-burning has also caused problems in this region with annual burning has resulted in death of the pasture on many ranches, but this may also be related to seasonality of burning.  There are reports of 3 year burns being sustainable, and other reports of every two years being sustainable.

In the transition habitat where Vargᾶo (inundated lowland) is present, a lot of people have traditionally used “Andropogon” (Andropogon gayanus var. planaltina) which can have very little nutrition if not carefully managed.  It can be good forage if the plants are kept low (1-2 ft / 50 cm), and it can harvest dew moisture, yet in many other inundated areas, the Brachiara species Brachiaria humidicula is favored. This species has been cultivated in the region for more than 20 years (as has B. brizantha), but it has a more rhizomatous habitat than B. brizantha, which often acts more like a perennial bunch-grass.  It offers good cover but again does not appear to offer much protein.

There is current concern that the region is overly dependent on Brachiaria cultivars. Almost all the intensively grown grasses in the region are Brachiaria species (e.g., B. brizantha, B. humidicola), other cultivars of Brachiaria observed in cultivation in the region include: B. dictyonueron.  All cope well with poor soils and can survive for many years, but generally have low protein content, and in the case of B. brizanthathey can become lignin-heavy as they get older. Furᾶo is a new grass (reported to be in the genus Cynodon) that is proving to be excellent forage, and is currently grown in the Cerrado habitat and some of the inundated land.  This grass is perhaps the most current trend in local forage.  It is unknown whether Furᾶo is a native grass or an introduced species, although the latter seems more probable. Also two species/cultivars of Panicum, known as Mombaҫa (Panicum maximum cultivar) and Tanzania, are high potential.  The problem with all three of these non-Brachiaria grasses is that they are reported to need additional soil fertility, which is not an option using traditional methods.  Perhaps new management techniques can help to prevent soil deterioration?  Perhaps new burn regimes can help to improve the productivity of these pastures?  What about the planting techniques?  Many of the pastures were sown simply to be sold, with a single rotation tilling.  Could re-sowing or sowing with a three-till rotation improve the sustainability of these pastures? These are the questions we hope to address with the community over the coming years.

What about the native environment, native grasses and native plants? The favorite native grass of the region is three-leaves or three-star.  No-one knows its identity (scientific name) but it does well in wet areas and of all native pastures is strongly preferred by cattle. Soils were definitely in better condition in pastures where some trees had been left standing for shade.  In open dry pasture we sometimes saw an increase in soil temperature, a decrease in organic matter, a decrease in soil organisms, increased soil compaction, nutrient leaching and ultimately, death of the grass.   The shade trees seemed to benefit both the cattle and the pasture, and had the added benefit of providing food to the ranch, as the trees left standing are usually fruit trees.

Brazilian laws mandate that a certain percentage of each ranch is left as ‘set-aside’ or reserve land to help maintain biodiversity. How did people feel about that?  Well, in an area where rainfall has been reported to drop over 20% in recent years, people often felt that they left some forest untouched so that there would be rain; a very astute insight into the importance of rainforest to climate.  The other resource of course is wood, leaving some forest makes sure there is always some wood nearby, and many people mentioned that leaving some habitat for the jaguar keeps him away from your cows. Surprisingly only one person mentioned intrinsic value and beauty in the reserve land (a third generation rancher with 43 years on his site who has cleared little of the forest he is entitled too). His knowledge of the local plants and their medicinal uses was impressive, although this was an exception to the norm in this region, where most people are first or second generation ranchers.

Native plant conservation and native forage species meet in this region on the ‘vargᾶo’.  It’s a seasonally flooded savannah, actually mostly of sedges not grasses, which can feed cattle when the planted pastures are recovering. There are several unidentified native grasses that are contributing significantly to the cattle diet, and while many native grasses have a lot of lignin and are hard for the cattle to digest, young plants (e.g., after burning or cutting) are often excellent fodder, and are highly preferable to over-grazing the planted pastures at the driest times of the year.  As the arch of the agricultural frontier moves into the flooded savannahs a new suite of ecological questions and management questions arise, about the best ways to ranch this region, always keeping in mind the three E’s of successful ranching – Ecology, Economy and Enjoyment – for a sustainable, productive and happy ranch, for generations to come.