Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest.
A decade ago, two range scientists in San Angelo were grappling with how to help ranchers become more effective in battling such unwanted brush as mesquite and pricklypear.
The confusing array of herbicides on the market perplexed ranchers, and treatment instructions on the labels weren't easy to follow. Too often, ranchers were wasting money putting out too much herbicide, which resulted in poor brush control and did the land and the environment no favors.
The answer was to simplify.
"We simply pared down all the known techniques, herbicides and research into just two or three recommended methods per species," recalls Dr. Allan McGinty, a range specialist with Texas Cooperative Extension. "We knew from experience the methods we chose would yield a 75 percent or better (brush) kill if done properly. Improper application is the single most common cause of brush control failures."
McGinty teamed with Dr. Darrell Ueckert, a range researcher with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, to develop the Brush Busters program. The program provides ranchers, small-acreage owners, suburbanites and municipalities the user-friendly information they need to control Texas' worst brush pests.
Working with Extension specialists in agricultural communications, they developed a set of easily understood, easily reproduced instructional pamphlets. The three-step procedures help ranchers pick the best method, equipment and time for treating their individual brush problems. The materials also offer recipes for mixing chemicals so ranchers have no calculations to make, which lowers failure rates.
McGinty explains conventional control techniques such as aerial spraying and bulldozing are less practical on small tracts, but Brush Busters is ideal since it's an individual plant control treatment. The specialist said the best time to chemically treat brush is when it's young. It takes less herbicide and the success rate is higher. Knocking out emerging brush also minimizes damage to soils, grasses, and wildlife habitat.
"This is a simpler, more precise brush control method," McGinty says, "and ranchers like it because they can kill one plant but leave the one next to it unharmed, preserving the brush they want to keep for deer and quail."
Lee Clark, a Menard County rancher, has used Brush Busters techniques since the early 1990s, spraying 7,000 to 8,000 acres to control mesquite and pricklypear.
"I've had extremely good luck with all the methods I've tried," he says. "I learned to do all this just by reading those Brush Busters pamphlets. I think the overall program is great."
For the past three years, Clark has been in the brush control business, mainly as a way to keep his ranch hands employed during the off-season.
"People from Austin and Houston are buying up land here in Menard County in 100- to 200-acre tracts," he says. "We've done a bunch of that (brush control) work, and we've done some work on 15,000- to 16,000-acre ranches. We're getting 90 percent or higher (kill rate on brush), and, you know, that's pretty good."
Market research done in 2000 shows that Brush Busters was used for mesquite control on more than a million acres of Texas rangeland, a figure that continues to increase annually. Brush Busters methods in 2000 were estimated to have saved rangeland owners $13 million and reduced herbicide use by 30 percent, compared to traditional aerial applications.
"Brush Busters mesquite treatments three years ago were estimated to have added $69 million to the Texas economy through increased livestock production previously lost to brush," McGinty says. "The program conserved 221 billion to 413 billion gallons of water that had previously gone to brush."
Brush Busters originally concentrated on pricklypear, cedar and mesquite. Today, eight species are on the list, including yucca, huisache, Chinese tallow, McCartney rose and saltcedar.
"The old programs on mesquite and pricklypear are still the most popular," McGinty says. "We'll keep adding species as we find ones that fit. Baccharis is one we're working on now, and we'd like to get greenbrier in there.
"The Brush Busters philosophy is not limited to rangeland anymore," he says. "We're working on a project now at the San Angelo airport. An area next to the runways has to be mowed every two weeks to keep the vegetation off the lights. They can't grub it because of all the underground electrical lines. The only practical answer is Brush Busters.
"A lot of city water treatment plants are using Brush Busters to control brush around their lagoons and water storage areas. We regularly train right-of-way people for power-line companies, railroads, highways, cities, irrigation districts and counties.
The Lower Colorado River Authority is a Brush Busters user that traditionally hasn't allowed herbicides on land it controls. Their Creek Side Conservation Program is a cost-share program with private landowners within its 11-county district which runs from San Saba County to Matagorda County.
Rusty Ray of Austin, the management supervisor for LCRA lands said the program's focus is to control soil or sediment from going into receiving streams and ultimately into LCRA reservoirs.
"We' re trying to stabilize the soil," said Ray. "Brush control is a large part of the program. In the past we have not used herbicides at all. We were getting requests from the district conservationists who were seeking a new tool to control brush. We said if they would use the Brush
Busters techniques for mesquite management, we would allow it on the cost-share program.
"Why Brush Busters? Individual treatment is the way to go when dealing with brush," Ray says. "The ranchers don't have to use as much herbicide, so they spend less money and there is less chemical to potentially enter a waterway or a stream."
McGinty says no matter who uses Brush Busters, the key to the program's success remains the same: "Small amounts of chemicals, applied at the right time and in the right way, make it possible for anyone to effectively and responsibly control most brush problems."
More information is available on the Brush Busters at http://texnat.tamu.edu/brshbst/index.htm.