J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 5-2-11 | TheFencePost.com

J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 5-2-11

J.C. Mattingly
Moffat, Colo.

When you live in a Valley that only gets 7 or 8-inches of rain a year, it can be hard to tell when you’re actually in a dry spell. As a visitor from Iowa recently pointed out to me: “We get as much in a couple good thunderstorms as you guys get in a whole year.”

We live in a short grassland, made fertile and green by the rainshadow effect of the mountains, which catch snow and fill our reservoirs and ditches, aquifers and wellheads.

One way I know it’s a dry spell is that when we get a slow quarter-inch of rain, as we did this last weekend (truly a resurrection rain), peoples’ mood improves, and the grass starts to grow. On just a quarter-inch of slow rain, followed by a couple of cloudy days, the grass ventures forth with a few green blades, even after a winter with very little snow and lots of wind.

I understand it came as a surprise to researchers of the human genome that grass actually has more genes than a human being, meaning, perhaps, that grass is a more complex biological entity than a human. Grass is one of the oldest species on the planet, and does something humans can’t: get a daily meal by standing out in the sun.

Grasses are the ancestors of cereal grains, wheat being known as the staff of life, and grasses are also the ancestor of rice, a food staple in much of the world. Though we often think of grass as something for grazing, it is a species that has contributed greatly to our survival, and our robustness as species.

In the absence of agriculture, grasslands are a transitional biome between forest and desert. If more rainfall were to come about, forest would grow, and with less rain, desert would take over.

There are typically tall and short grass biomes. The Midwestern U.S. was once a tall grass prairie, while most of the Western U.S. is short grass. When the Homestead Act was passed in the 1860s, the federal government’s land offices did not immediately understand the difference between the tall and short grass prairies.

Many of the pioneers who came West discovered that 160 acres was not an economic unit. In some cases, 160 acres wouldn’t even feed the mules that pulled their wagon westward, and as a result, many homesteaders lived with extreme hardship. John Wesley Powell came west in the 1890s, conducted a study of the short grass prairies, and told Congress that west of the 100th Meridian homesteads needed to be an astounding 2,540 acres to be comparable to 160 acres in the tall grass prairies.

Congress, of course, didn’t believe Powell’s analysis, so the West underwent a kind of natural selection in the real estate market during the inevitable dry spells, in which large ranches resulted from homesteader failures. To this day, many ranches in the West are larger even than Powell’s recommendation of 2,640 acres. The XIT Ranch was once about 3 million acres, and the largest ranch in the U.S. today is the King Ranch, of about 825,000 acres.

All of the Western short grass waits every spring for rain, and as an old friend of mine often says as the sun sets on another dry day, “Well, we’re one day closer to rain.”

His wife, who has grown tired of hearing him say this, responds, “And by that logic, we’re all one day closer to being dead.”

To which my old friend snaps back, “Don’t be such an optimist.”

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