Landmark conservationist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), once said, “The landscape of any farm is the owner's portrait of himself. Conservation implies self-expression in that landscape.”
Texans can be proud that one outstanding citizen has created a self-portrait on his land that is so beautiful and ecologically balanced it would make Leopold’s heart smile.
Described by the media as a “conservation activist,” James K. “Rooter” Brite, Jr. is a born-to-the-land Texas rancher. He was born and raised on the ranch his grandfather J.A. Brite purchased in 1929 near Bowie, Texas. Brite took over his dad's cowherd in the mid-1960s and purchased the ranch from his father in 1974, when he began full-time management of the ranch with his wife Lynda and eventually his son J.K.
The ranch lies in a transition area of native tall grass prairie and post oak cross timber region of North Central Texas. Brite runs over 850 cows and yearlings on 3,400 acres of shallow, rocky soils in an area that receives less than 30 inches of rainfall annually. He has learned to operate within the limitations of the hand that nature has dealt him.
“You have to look at the cumulative value of everything you do on the land,” Brite says. “Management decisions you make (today) will make a difference 30 years from now. It all adds up, whichever direction you go.”
At an early age he learned the cause and effect of different land management practices. These first-hand lessons he learned from the land stimulated his desire to learn more.
By college age, Brite was intrigued by the land so he enrolled in Texas Christian University’s Ranch Management program. TCU Professor Chip Merrill inspired Brite to try new things and not to be afraid to try something different.
“I apply land management practices that are practical, using common sense,” Brite says. “I don’t do things because they are what somebody else thinks might be good. I do things because they work on this land, and that’s what makes the difference.”
At the beginning of his ranching career Brite consulted with the local NRCS office for conservation planning and technical assistance. The J.A. Brite Ranch has had an active conservation plan with the Montague County NRCS office since 1964. For the past three decades he has used NRCS expertise to help assess and analyze the natural resources on his land to develop a long-term management plan.
“I’m not doing anything here that anybody else couldn’t do,” Brite says. “The NRCS offers land management advice to anyone that wants it. They are in almost every county and they don’t cost anything but time. The technology and information they have has been helpful in making my management decisions.”
Brite approaches the resource management of the ranch using a short-term reactionary response to changing forage, production and anticipated market condition. His long-term management is of a continuing upward trend in successional native forage.
“I feel like we can utilize our current management methods and maintain, or in areas of need, improve the productivity of this ranch in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner,” Brite says.
Brite has implemented rotational grazing, brush management, pest management, fencing, prescribed burning, range planting, water facility installation, and wildlife habitat improvement projects into his overall conservation plan.
Cattle are the center of Brite’s operation. He uses them not only to produce income for the ranch, but also as a tool to manage the range for optimum health. He runs a purebred Hereford cow-calf and stocker operation, with retained ownership through the feedyard on a portion of the stockers.
“I keep the ranch stocked on observation,” Brite says. “I adjust grazing management primarily on forage conditions, and secondarily on the cattle condition. We have to keep them healthy to breed to be a viable operation, but we want the range in good condition too.”
A substantial added bonus to this type of intensive rotation management is the gentle, daily handling of the cattle. Additionally, any sick cattle can easily be spotted and treated with a minimum amount of stress.
With the land and livestock, low impact and gentle movements are trademarks of Brite’s management techniques. His conservative stocking rates have enabled him to harvest enough hay and native grass seed that it provides significant income for the ranch.
Participating in the Great Plains Conservation Program since the early 1970s, Brite chained out brush, shaped gullies, renovated native grass pastures and built stock tanks. Over the years, he has re-established stands of native grasses. The ranch has a range condition rating of good to excellent.
Livestock and wildlife benefit from the diversity of plant life on the J.A. Ranch. A mix of grasses, broadleaf and woody plants provide forage for many types of wildlife. Because most of the ranch is watered with earth ponds, nearly 60 of them, quail, deer and other wildlife have easy access to fresh water supplies year round.
Brite says rotational grazing plans are conducive to producing good wildlife vegetation.
“The deer are always one pasture ahead of the cattle,” Brite says. “If I want to go check on the deer, I know where to go.”
“I have found that when I do things that are good for the land and the natural resources, a lot of other benefits come from that,” Brite says. “In addition to better livestock grazing, wildlife also benefits from healthy range conditions and improved watering sites.”
In 1999, Brite voluntarily developed a 503 non-point source pollution abatement plan for the entire ranch. This was done in cooperation with the Upper-Elm Red Soil and Water Conservation District.
Brite leads by example on his own ranch, but he has led strong cooperative conservation efforts at the local, state and national levels.
The Brite Ranch has been a member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers association for Brite’s entire life. He has been a director of the TSCRA since 1999, and has served on their Agriculture and Research and Natural Resources and Environmental committees since 1994. He has served as a director of the Upper-Elm Red Soil and Water Conservation District since 1979.
He has served on the Association of Texas Soil and Water Conservation Districts board and on the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board. He represents the National Association of Conservation Districts on the National Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative Steering Committee. Additionally, he serves on the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Natural Resource and Environment Committee.
Brite has hosted numerous field trips on the ranch in cooperation with Cooperative Extension, NRCS, and Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) to promote practical approaches in many different areas of conservation management.
This cattleman is a role model for how sound grassland and livestock management and good conservation practices can work together. He is a land steward and a national leader for conserving rangeland and protecting the environment.