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Conservation of Land & Heritage

Dan and Tom Griffin stand strong on their family ranch in front of angus cattle.


On the Griffin Ranch, family traditions are a blueprint for decisions about college, livelihoods and ranch management, but are difficult to amend. Tom, Dan, and Ben Griffin graduated from Texas Tech University like their father and are the fifth generation to manage a portion of the family ranch in Borden County, Texas.

Tom and Dan perpetuate stewardship attitudes they learned from previous generations, but have fostered a stronger relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve their conservation practices.

Dropping off the cap

The Griffin Ranch is about 30,000 acres in total and lies right off the caprock, a stunning 250-mile-long geographic border marking the end of the Southern Plains. They also have another portion of the ranch around Channing, Texas.

“You drop off the cap, and it has a lot more character as far as up and down, breaks and creeks,” Tom said. “Every pasture is a little different.”

Tom, Dan and Ben take care of separate portions of the cow-calf ranch. However, the Griffins act as a team during times like branding and weaning and will help each other take care of the ranch regardless of whose “portion” they are working. They treat the ranch as one cohesive family business and “plan to keep it that way,” according to Dan.

The family has been managing the land since 1926 when Thomas Louis Griffin first established the ranch.

Taking back the land

Based on stories from his grandpa, Tom said the landscape was completely different back then. It would’ve looked more like the Rolling Plains with a few short mesquite trees, if any.

“It has changed quite a bit I’d say,” Tom said and chuckled, “but I think it’s always been dry.”

Thomas Lane Griffin, the brothers’ dad, began battling mesquite on the ranch, a struggle that has continued into the next generation. The trees, a problematic invasive species, suppress grasslands and dominate water resources. They are hard to eradicate, but spread easily.

“Whether you get governmental assistance or not, you have to fight it,” Tom said, “or else it takes over. It crawls through and spreads like wildfire.”

Dan and Tom said they administer brush control through aerial spraying, grubbing with a tractor or excavator, and have recently experimented with prescribed burns collaborating with the NRCS.

Firm foundations

“Since I can remember, Dad pretty much took care of the ranch himself with a couple of hands from time to time,” Tom said. “He’s done more on this ranch than we’ve done together.”

Tom explained Griffin Sr. is not resistant to new ideas and management practices, but he is a careful and cautious, especially not wanting to detriment the ranch’s grazing capability.

“He’s seen a lot more drought in his lifetime than Dan and I have,” Tom said. “He has more experience and is still the final say on a lot of things.”

The brothers consider drought a family hardship along with the passing of their grandfather.

“Paw Paw died in 2010,” Dan said, “and then it didn’t rain.”

“Paw Paw died in 2010, and then it didn’t rain.”

Since 1996, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service reports droughts have taken more than $38.5 billion from the Texas agriculture economy with farm and ranch losses totaling $21.62 billion.

Tom said 2014 and 2015 were positive years for the ranch. Since the “worst” drought Tom has ever experienced in 2011 and 2012, the ranch’s populations of quail, deer, and bobcats have skyrocketed, largely due to the conservation work the Griffins do with the NRCS.

NRCS conservation partnership

With their increasing roles as ranch managers, Tom and Dan have brought new ideas to the table by working closely with the local NRCS’s field office to improve the ranch using conservation enhancements through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The Griffin brothers are able to enroll in NRCS programs as Young Farmer and Ranchers. This incentive gives young families like the Griffins, who are beginning to establish or expand their agricultural operations, a slightly higher cost-share rate on conservation practices and improvement projects.

Dan said the NRCS has helped cost-share projects on the ranch including building fences to help prevent overgrazing, spreading out water sources for cattle, and building a water storage system to save water for drought years.

“Because these improvements are cost prohibitive, we would’ve had to get loans,” Tom said. “The financial assistance from the NRCS makes it easier to do these conservation enhancements.”

The NRCS provides technical and financial assistance but also supports ranchers as an educational resource with a team of district conservationists, water quality and grazing land specialists, and agricultural engineers.

Dan has worked with Matthew Coffman, the NRCS Southern Rolling Plains grazing lands coordinator, to formulate a prescribed burn plan for the Griffin ranch.

“Matt made the entire fire plan, and it didn’t cost us anything,” Dan said. “The prescribed burns have helped with productivity of the grasses and brush control and has made our pastures healthier.”

Dan said working with Coffman and other NRCS staff has sparked his interest to learn more about grasses and how to keep the land productive.

Coffman said he began working with Dan in 2014. He said he is inspired by the large-scale impact on the health of the land from work his NRCS predecessors did nearly 20 years ago.

Coffman said goals for the ranch include building the burn program to the point where the Griffins have applying prescribed burns “down to a science” with a regular rotation of acres and are able to take more control of the process.

“They are just great guys,” Coffman said. “I enjoy working with them, and I can tell they want to benefit their land. They’re working really hard.”

Strong family bonds

Responsible stewardship is one of the many Griffin family traditions that the brothers said is “in their blood.”

Tom said his wife and kids enjoy Texas Tech football games and are able to sit in the same seats that Tom and his brothers did growing up. Tom and Ben were able to get the season tickets their grandparents used to have.

Gloria Griffin, the brothers’ grandmother, still lives at the homeplace and celebrated her 87th birthday in October. Tom said she has plenty of great-grandkids who visit her daily. The brothers indicated their strong ties to their family motivated them to return to the ranch after graduating.

Overall, Tom describes the Griffins as blessed to be able to continue living on the ranch and passing down family traditions and values down to the next generation.

“We grew up riding horses, working cows, hunting, fishing, and going to church,” Dan said. “Visiting grandma next door seem to be about as good a lifestyle to raise kids in as we can think of.”



New Partnership Program to Benefit Farmers, Environment

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) partnered with the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District (HPWD) and six other underground water districts for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, known as RCPP, to help farmers remotely monitor soil moisture.

Greg Sokora, NRCS civil engineer in Lubbock, said the RCPP consists of a soil moisture monitoring system that measures the amount of moisture in the ground. A telemetry receiver, much like a cellphone tower, is placed either at the pivot or in the field allowing farmers to receive up-to-date soil moisture information every 15 minutes to an hour on their smartphones, tablets or home computers.

“Water flow meters and chemigation valves are the high priority practices in the RCPP program,” Sokora said.

Image courtesy USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Brandt Underwood, NRCS conservation agronomist in Lubbock, said the RCPP program is going to help farmers match their irrigation scheduling closer to their crop water needs by using the most advanced soil moisture monitoring technology available.

“I would call [the RCPP program] a three-way partnership between us, the landowner, and the contractor,” Underwood said. “It’s beneficial for us all to work together. What NRCS is doing is providing some technical and financial assistance. When we’re done, we have a quality installation and a quality practice on a piece of land that will help us increase that conservation level on that farm.”

Jason Coleman, general manager for HPWD, said he sees a possibility for the continuation of the program if it is as successful as producers believe it to be. He said there is roughly $2 million for the next five years to allow producers an opportunity to utilize those funds for some of the areas of water conservation and water management.

“It would be nice if this program is as successful as we believe it will be, and that this partnership program remains available through USDA,” Coleman said.

IrrigationTech_BHeff using app 2
Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Coleman said through the program, the HPWD hopes to offer services and assistance to producers and well owners, specifically for producers with flow tests. Coleman said those services are aimed at educating and helping people understand changing water levels and changing water conditions on their properties. This allows the farmers to leverage that information with the equipment to better manage water resources on their properties.

Underwood said this program is designed to assist farmers with more opportunity to build on their existing management for irrigation scheduling.

“Depending on how a farmer has set up his operation determine how many flow meters he will need,” Underwood said. “Sprinkler systems are designed to run at a certain number of gallons per minute, and it’s hard to manage what you can’t measure. A flow meter is just another tool to help them manage what they’ve got.”

This program is also helping the environment in relation to managing water resources. Sokora said this program is pertinent to West Texas and water resources in the area.

“Saving water: That’s the big intent,” Sokora said, “That’s our intent, that’s the groundwater district’s intent.”

“If a farmer can stop two irrigations — one at the beginning of the season and one at the end of the season — he would have left that much more water in the aquifer,” said Sokora.

Example Root Summary Plot (Fig. 7)
Photo courtesy USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Coleman said farmers who want to sign up for the RCPP program may go to their local USDA-NRCS offices and inquire about the program. Sokora said there’s been heavy interest despite the program just beginning.

“I think it’s got off to a good start,” Sokora said. “There’s been a lot of outreach. A lot of the water districts had a waiting list for people to apply…we’re looking forward to a good sign up. There’s a lot of interest in that. Farmers have to save everything they can with the water and the energy and the money that they save by not pumping water.”

What’s the Buzz on Pollinators?

This honey bee is collecting necter from a Mesa Red Gaillardia flower.

 What do your favorite pair of blue jeans and the apple you ate for breakfast have in common? At some point in time, a pollinator helped set the process in motion to get a crop from the field to you.

The Value of a Bee

According to the National Academy of Science, there are more than 250,000 known species of flowering plants on Earth. Seventy-five percent of those species rely on animal-assisted pollination, including the plants that produce a large portion of our food, fiber and oils.

An estimated $212 billion globally and $15 billion nationally have been attributed to pollination service by pollinators, according to the Xerces Society. Thirty percent of world food production relies on pollinators. These foods range from apples and almonds to watermelons and pumpkins, while also including plants like alfalfa, which is used as a livestock forage to produce meat and dairy products.

Pollinators also play an important role in the pollination of crops like cotton, which is ultimately used to make your favorite jeans.

Cotton is an important crop in West Texas and drives the regional economy. Lubbock County and the surrounding 18 counties, make up the largest cotton producing area in the world, often exceeding 3 million acres annually, according to the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. The crop even played its own vital role in the establishment of Texas Tech University.

This is one of the reasons researchers at Tech have teamed up with organizations like Bayer Crop Sciences, the Wildlife Society and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to study native pollinators.


NRCS supported a Conservation Innovators Grant specifically aimed at pollinator research, worth over $300,000 to support the research at Texas Tech.

Without pollinators we would be in real trouble, said NRCS Wildlife Biologist Manuel De Leon.

CIG Program Director and Assistant Professor of Etymology at Texas Tech University, Scott Longing, Ph.D., said the program is aimed at expanding the knowledge of native pollinators in the area, so that future conservation efforts can be carried out.

“We don’t know yet, the value of wild bees and their pollination services,” Longing said.

A Lot To Learn

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent the number of pollinators is declining. According to Longing, this came to the forefront of public attention with Colony Collapse Disorder, a compounded issue that has caused dramatic losses in honey bee populations.

This has led to an abundance of research on honey bees, an important pollinator in the agronomic system, but also a species that is non-native to North America. Longing said the influx of research has also failed to definitively account for declining native populations of bees, mostly due to a lack of information on them.

According to Longing, there are over 900 native species of bees in Texas, with more than 100 species living in the high plains area. However, little is known about these native pollinators. In fact, Longing said his team actually has more species of bees in its collection than the local museum.

“We are trying to find out about pollinator diversity,” Longing said, “so we can really monitor pollinator decline.”

Longing said he and his team have partnered with 19 farmers from across West Texas to set up a variety of research plots. The research plots range from Conservation Reserve Program land to land bordering a vineyard and organic cotton farm, to even a pumpkin farm in Floyd County.

One thing many don’t understand about bees is that while honey bees and some species of bumble bees are social, most other species are solitary. According to the Xerxes Society, most species native to North America make their nests in the soil, where they will tunnel out brood cells to lay eggs.

These solitary bees usually live for about one year, but spend most of their lives developing in their nest. Humans typically only see native bees in their adult stage which last three to six weeks, according to the Xerces Society.

“We want to learn about their habitat,” Longing said, “so we can figure out the best way to manage them, so that they can provide that pollination service.”

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What are they learning?

With the very limited amount of information about the native pollinators in the area, Longing said his team is studying many facets of the native pollinators including their habitats.  One thing the team has already observed is the native bees on the Floyd County pumpkin farm, manage to live in the rotation fields, somehow making it out of the soil before the field is cultivated the next year.

Longing said that particular pumpkin farmer had brought in almost 100 hives of migratory honey bee hives to support pollination services, but the team noticed that only two varieties of the pumpkins were being pollinated by them. The rest were being pollinated by native squash bees.

“Another need, from an economic stand point, is just to learn about pollinator services.” Longing said. “To learn what the different bees are pollinating, and what can benefit from the pollination, from a honey bee stand point and a native bee stand point, and to keep farmers from spending excess money on honey bees that aren’t doing anything for their crop.”

The research Longing and his team are doing stands not only to benefit pollinator conservation, but also has great potential to benefit producers.

According to Longing, recent research conducted by another university showed a correlation between cotton fields that were surrounded by wild vegetation and native bee species, and larger cotton boll sizes due to out-crossing of pollination. Longing said he hopes his project finds valuable information like this that benefits producers and pollinators.

Longing said Texas Tech is located in a unique, but well suited, area for pollinator research to be conducted. The university sits in a transition zone between two insect-rich areas, the Great Plains and the Southwestern United States, which he noted is likely the most diverse area in the U.S. in terms of stinging insects. This rich diversity makes the High Plains an optimal place to gather information about pollinators.

This is one of the reasons Tech was selected for NRCS’ prestigious Conservation Innovation Grant, as well as a native pollinator planting location. The location is one of only four in the nation and is a collaborative initiative between Bayer Crop Sciences and The Wildlife Society to provide forage for native pollinator populations.

The project taking place at Texas Tech could have a major impact on the future of agriculture. With declining numbers of pollinators and limited current knowledge, the future could look grim, but Longing and his team, with the support of their partners, are working to change that.

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