Before the turn of the century, the greatest part of the Southwest United States was made up of vast grasslands covering the rolling plains which were naturally managed by great herds of American bison, or buffalo. Wildfires were very much a part of this ecosystem. With no fences, wild animals could escape the flames and the light fuels often burned out at sunset.

Springtime brought nutritious new growth to the burn scars and the grasslands would help retain moisture in the soil through frequent dry spells. Between the end of the Civil War and 1900, huge herds of wild cattle were basically free for the taking and ex-patriots began assembling herds that numbered in the millions. They were valued for their hides, not meat, as refrigeration had not yet arrived.

Cattle replaced the buffalo, which by this time had largely been exterminated from the Great Plains for the same reason. These massive herds of cattle were often held in an area until all the grass was gone. Then they were moved west to the next pasture and the process would be repeated. The result was a huge swath of the country was overgrazed in a very short period of time.

The grass never recovered, but instead was replaced by invasive brushy species that did not retain moisture and caused wildfires that were not easily extinguished. In the late 1970s, Dow Chemical Company discovered chemistry that would control these shallow rooted species known collectively as brush.

Tebuthiuron prevented the roots from absorbing any nutrients resulting in the plant slowly starving to death over about a three-year period, depending on rainfall. For rangeland brush control, it was marketed as a product called Spike and formulated as 20P (20% active ingredient in a clay pellet).

The only drawback to the product was price with the cost of treatment often exceeding the value of the land being treated. The oil boom currently engulfing West Texas has created a unique problem for landowners. Ranchers have often spent generations struggling to make a living, suddenly have found themselves flush with cash and having to pay exorbitantly high tax bills.

This has caused Spike applications to become a very attractive way to improve their land and at the same time create a sizable tax write-off. The company I fly for has seen this firsthand over the last several years and 2017 was no exception.

Orders for work to be completed by the end of the year started arriving in October. It wasn’t long before we had a little more than ten thousand acres on the books to be done from four different locations and we didn’t have an airplane to do it with, as my regular Spike aircraft had recently sold.

Our first treatment area was just north of Brackettville, Texas and it appeared the closest place to fly it out of was Edwards County airport. Word soon came down that a lease aircraft, an AT-502B, had been found and would be delivered to Edwards County as soon as it was ready.

I was disappointed the morning the ferry pilot arrived and handed me a list of squawks on the airplane, no ITT, no Ng, no cabin heat, no locking tailwheel and the list went on. To top it off it had small fuel tanks. Brush work often involves long ferries and every minute spent traveling and burning fuel meant one less minute over the treatment area. We got started on the Spike applications the following morning.

The first pasture was forty-five miles away proving the small fuel tanks to be a huge disadvantage. We persevered and after about ten days the first job was complete. Next, the crew and I moved down to Marfa, Texas for a week of work, then on to Van Horn, Fort Stockton and finally onto Iraan, Texas. Through hard work and long hours, we finished with a few days to spare. Now, we await until next November so we can do it again.

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