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“There’s an old farmer saying, ‘If your neighbor asked you how much rain you got, you want to be able to tell them that you got all of it.’”
Editor’s Note: This is part of an emerging Deceleration series on Regeneration in concept and practice.
Pure Pastures, a 2,000-acre ranch near Canyon Lake, Texas, built its mission around regenerative agriculture. In addition to raising cattle, sheep, and pigs, the ranch owners are working to restore the prairie ecosystem that defined the Texas Hill Country before waves of European settlement, extermination of the buffalo, and subsequent overgrazing by imported livestock. In what may go down as the hottest year on record, that’s proving quite a challenge.
“It’s kind of like building on each other,” Pure Pastures owner Maggie Eubanks said.
“We rebuild the soil, the soil rebuilds the grasses, the grasses help us hold onto the soil and that helps us hold onto the water. It’s kind of like the circle of life.”
Toward the southern tip of the Blackland Prairie, the most important feature of the grassland ecosystem here were the grasses and wildflowers that fed the region’s bison and whose roots held the soil, preventing erosion. However, the virtual extermination of bison and the introduction of large-scale farming of cash crops like cotton all but destroyed the Blackland Prairie ecosystem, including the region surrounding Canyon Lake.
Since prairie grasses that held the soil are largely gone, erosion has posed the biggest natural challenge for ranchers in the Hill Country. Pure Pastures’ restoration efforts have mainly focused on rebuilding the soil to allow grass to grow and feed the ranch’s cattle.
However, in the past year, ranches across Texas, but especially in Central Texas, including the Canyon Lake area, have faced an even more significant challenge: one of the worst droughts in their history.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of Texas is experiencing some stage of drought. The epicenter of this drought is settled over Texas Hill Country counties like Bexar, Kendall, and Comal, where Pure Pastures is located, facing extreme or exceptional drought.
Rainfall has been avoiding this area, according to Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon Texas State Climatologist based at Texas A&M University, who called 2022 the second driest year on record.
“The precipitation last year in San Antonio was 11.5 inches and the normal is 32.4 inches,” Nielsen-Gammon said. This is compared to the 2011 drought where the driest 12-month period saw a mere 10.7 inches.
“For both droughts, a key factor was the average summertime temperature which causes things to dry out due to greater heat stress and San Antonio in 2022 had its highest temperature ever,” Nielsen Gammon said. That was until this year when a whole new suite of high-temp records began to fall.
Just over 70 percent full, lake levels at Canyon Lake are near all-time lows.
In July 2022, the Farm Service Agency in Texas announced that “severe and widespread drought conditions are having a catastrophic impact on crops, grazing acres, livestock and agricultural operations statewide.”
In Texas Hill Country, little has changed this year.
While drought affects all agriculture industries, it’s particularly tough on livestock operations that can’t depend heavily on irrigated systems as much as crops can. The environmental pressures have caused many ranches to adjust their operations to cope with the drought.
According to Mitch Hagney, chief executive officer of LocalSprout, a hydroponic farming operation in San Antonio that also partners with other farms and livestock operators, many livestock partners have had to harvest meat early, destock, or significantly reduce the number of cattle on site.
According to a January 2023 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Texas counted 12.5 million cattle and calves, down 2% from last year’s 12.7 million.
Images: Deborah Silliman
In Fall 2022, Pure Pastures began relocating its cattle to other ranches to take pressure off the land and allow the ranch to continue its regenerative mission. Livestock rotation helps avoid overgrazing and damaging any tract of land.
According to Eubank, who operates Pure Pastures with her husband, Jeremiah, the ranch experienced diminished grazing even before relocating their cattle, forcing them to buy meat from other ranches to resell to their wholesale and direct-to-consumer customers.
Looking ahead, Eubank said that the ranch is introducing solutions to combat the effects of drought and erosion. Pure Pastures hired a consultant who specializes in erosion to evaluate the ranch.
Because suburban neighborhoods surround Pure Pastures, the ranch gets a lot of runoff water every time it rains. The Eubanks have taken this opportunity to put up structures to hold onto water and slow it down when it does come. This has included installing ponds around the ranch to hold more water, as well as small dams known as “one-rock” dams and a “media luna,” or crescent-moon shaped dam, to slow the water and help it fan out over the land and sink into the soil.
This practice is in line with the broader “slow water” movement.
Examples of Simple Dams
“There’s an old farmer saying, if your neighbor asked you how much rain you got, you want to be able to tell them that you got all of it,” Eubanks said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get all the water we can and have it stay on the ranch.”
The Eubanks have also picked out test plots on the ranch to reseed some native perennial grasses which will do a better job of holding onto the soil structure and retaining more water. These have included bluestem, Indian grass, and Lindheimer muhly.
“The drought has been terrible, but it gives us the opportunity to look at it like, this is the worst of the worst,” Eubank said. “Now we can really plan around that and try to get some of these things done so that, when we do get rain, we’re in a better position to hang onto that water.”
While Pure Pastures has been in more-than-extreme drought for most of the last four years since they took over the Canyon Lake lease in 2019, moving into an El Niño climate cycle gives them a bit of hope for the year ahead.
“Moving into El Niño means a stronger hurricane season. So if we can catch some good fresh rain and soak that up rolling through next spring we should be good,” Eubank said.
“It will rain some day. It always does.”
Rachel Leland writes on wellness, religion, culture, and the environment. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, trying new recipes, attending concerts, and exploring Houston, where she lives with her puppy Lucy. Follow her at @RachelLeland6.
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