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Ranching on the Pecos: A prescription for healthy rangeland

Donnie Lunsford for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 July 2019
Two purebred Beefmaster cattle

What do the Pecos River, a pharmacist, downhill skiing and ranching have in common? If you live near Pecos, that would be John Rediger of JR Land and Cattle Company.

Rediger is a man of many talents, from being a National Standard Race (NASTAR) ranked skier, a drugstore owner, pharmacist, father, husband and producer of quality Beefmaster cattle.

Ranching is an iconic piece of west Texas heritage, and Rediger has more than embraced it. Since Rediger was a boy, he knew he had a connection to the land born from the time he spent with his father riding horseback across the land, working cattle on hot, dusty days and cold, wet ones or checking cattle during calving season. He’s still enjoying ranching more than 60 years later at 71 years old.

Rediger stands at his gate

“It’s the love of the land, love what you do, but really it is a passion. It’s like my skiing; it turns into an obsession,” says Rediger. “I only had Saturday afternoons and Sundays because I was working at the pharmacy during the week. That fence might have taken me two years to get built, but it was fun work when you are at the ranch.

“The shortest path to success is to roll up your sleeves, and the biggest factor you can give the ranch or farm is your shadow.”

Passion turns to obsession

Rediger was born in Houston with an asthma problem. His father followed a doctor’s advice and moved the family to a drier climate in west Texas. After living in a couple of west Texas towns and at the beginning of his sixth-grade year, the Rediger family settled in Pecos after buying a drugstore.

JR Land and Cattle Company was founded in 1961 by John’s father, John Rediger Sr., and his friend R.D. Hildreth. John Sr. and R.D. operated the 340-acre ranch while Rediger pursued his pharmacy career. Rediger and his father operated their pharmacy during the day and ranched during the evenings and weekends. John became a partner when Hildreth decided to retire from ranching. In 2009, Rediger took over sole operation of the ranch. Today, he runs more than 9,000 acres with one herd of Beefmaster cattle while also working to phase out the ranch’s commercial cattle herd.

Ranching and developing a quality high-performing beef herd continues to feed his passion. He and his father began raising Beefmaster cattle more than 45 years ago and never looked back. Rediger keeps detailed records on his purebred cattle. When selecting bulls and heifers, he has a criterion of desirable traits he evaluates when purchasing his cattle. In other words: He buys the best of the best.

“You can’t go first-class on a second-class ticket. If I started out by buying cows in the middle, how long would it take me to get them to the top?” emphasizes Rediger.

Stewardship: the only option

Rediger knows a rancher’s most important product is the quantity and quality of available forage. The cow is just the harvester. His mission is stewardship of the land. He has continued to pursue his stewardship goals by utilizing a rotational grazing system for his cattle, improving water distribution, building more cross-fencing, reducing brush encroachment and enhancing wildlife habitat. This has also led to an influx of quail, which had been in decline for many years. In turn, through successful improvement of his land and its management, Rediger is able to raise and market high-quality Beefmasters.

“I began improving my land and the land I lease by utilizing the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and their programs,” explains Rediger. “I began with a hundred acres of herbicide to control my mesquite and creosote brush. Then, while walking through that pasture, I had the ‘proof-is-in-the-pudding moment’ when side oats gramma showed up, which I had never seen in this pasture – ever.”

A combination of herbicides is used to treat mesquite, creosote and other undesirable brush species that can encroach on lands which have been historically overgrazed or unmanaged. Once these plants are eliminated or reduced, a stand of grass often returns naturally without having to reseed the area.

“I have now treated over 1,200 acres, and you can see where you stopped spraying like drawing a line in the sand. But you still have to have your grazing management in place, including rotating your herd, but also go back and spray by hand to keep the pastures waist-high in grass and the brush out,” he says.

“Learning to have the right stocking rate was the hardest thing to learn. I now run one cow per 200 acres where, historically, others run one cow to 80 acres. You must know and see what kind of grasses you are growing and not be afraid to move the cattle when needed. You can’t graze by a calendar.”

Keeping proper records is required for running registered cattle

Utilizing the “take half, leave half” grazing method, he monitors his grazing of key grass species to approximately 6 inches in height based on the recommendation of the NRCS when developing a grazing plan.

“Rotational grazing, spraying herbicide and adjusting to the correct stocking rate made sense after witnessing how my land and cattle responded to my new management. There is nothing better than looking over my cattle while riding my horse belly-high in grass,” Rediger reflects.

Management success in rough, dry country

Most days, Rediger begins by saddling up and going for a ride to check cows, fences and water troughs. His largest and most rewarding responsibility is watching his land respond to grazing.

“Today, I own and lease some of the roughest and driest areas in Texas. Many of these places didn’t have any water developed, fencing to help me keep cattle in the proper pastures, and overall had been abused. So I had to build it and improve it through sweat, blisters and blood. We are always trying to do what is best for the land.”

Rediger has installed more than 26,000 feet of livestock pipeline and 50,000 feet of interior fencing to improve grazing distribution and rotation. He is working to restore more than 37 acres of riparian area located on the Pecos River watershed by fencing off access to the river and stream from his cattle. This conservation practice also enhances wildlife habitat and improves water quality in those riparian areas. He also built six earthen stock water ponds for wildlife and livestock in areas where water wasn’t readily available.

In order to fight drought and the lack of forage, Rediger planted an improved giant “Cowboy” bermudagrass to an area where he is able to irrigate to allow cattle to have green leafy forage packed with high protein, so his cattle continue to reach desired gains while reducing grazing pressure on native pastures.

Building an oasis for birds and pollinators

Rediger has always put his own sweat equity into his pastures, but also his ranching headquarters. Located on the eastern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, the ranching headquarters has been transformed from just a ranch house and outbuildings into a native garden filled with shrubs, grasses and wildflowers, including a little manmade stream to give sanctuary to insects, birds and other wildlife including a covey or two of quail. From colorful lantana, Turk’s cap, desert willow, tall oaks and many more, this garden changes from the desert to an oasis. Rediger is proud of his garden that he has turned into his own area for relaxing and enjoying all the wildlife buzzing around.

“One of my favorite things I enjoy the most about getting away and going to the ranch is to sit on my porch and either drink my coffee in the morning or a cold beverage in the evening and just watch the hummingbirds, the bees, my scaled and bobwhite quail broods and anything else that enjoys my pollinator garden.”

Today, Rediger can see the tall grasses, hear the calls of the blue quail whistling in the distance, see the life around the Pecos River and smell the rain when a storm comes to relieve the desert, allowing the flowers to bloom.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Two purebred Beefmaster cattle enjoy the fresh, green, protein-filled giant bermudagrass as they begin their day grazing improved irrigated pasture in the hot, dry weather of the summer. 

PHOTO 2: Rediger stands at his gate on a cool winter morning as the morning light begins to creep over the horizon to begin his day of checking water, fences and cattle.

PHOTO 3: Keeping proper records is required for running registered cattle. Having gentle cattle is also a desirable trait that helps him easily inspect for injuries, eartag numbers, and overall body condition to ensure his herd is moving in a positive direction. Photos by Donnie Lunsford/NRCS.

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