Are the west Texas rangelands barren?

Driving through west Texas, you would think that the windmills are all there is to see. Flat, desert-like landscape is not what you expect the highest producing region of beef cattle and cotton in the United States to look like. Through the years, producers in this region have found a way to create life despite the high winds, low rainfall, and harsh temperatures.

Looking at the pictures in this blog, you can see the toll that the west Texas climate has had on the land. Years of wind erosion have carved into the rock, and there isn’t enough rainfall to support anything larger than a bush. Plants are struggling to keep the soil in place, and the roots that they form create pathways for water to travel down the soil profile. Below the ground, there are millions of microorganisms preparing nutrients for future use by plants.

Sandy soil with few plants
While doing field work, soil scientist Hannah Decker and her research team found biological crusts – which help sustain life in a barren landscape. Credit: Hannah Decker

Despite the many challenges that this semi-arid environment might present to the ecosystem, it also creates the perfect opportunity for biological soil crusts. These biocrusts consist of a network or bacteria, fungi, moss, lichen, and algae that work together to form a hard layer on the top of the soil. Biological crusts thrive in this semi-arid environment. They create a surface seal that helps stabilize the soil in the same way that plant cover would, but the biocrusts can only form and grow if the soil remains undisturbed.

Researcher pushing temperature probe into soil
A soil science researcher using a probe to take soil temperature. Despite the heat and arid conditions, plant and microbial life can live. Credit: Hannah Decker

Much of the land in this region has undergone tillage ever since mules pulled the plows. This technique does have benefits for farming, such as weed suppression and creation of a seedbed, but it can also damage the soil structure and microorganisms.

In the 1930s, high winds coupled with intensive tillage contributed to the dust bowl that devastated much of the plains. Since then, researchers and producers have been looking for ways to keep the topsoil in place. The organisms that create biological crusts might just play a key role in this search.

Cut-outs in the desert showing how plant roots can hold soil together
This gulley – formed from wind erosion – is held together by the plant roots that have anchored into the soil. Credit: Hannah Decker

This native rangeland in Muleshoe, Texas is managed to create a healthy soil. The land remains undisturbed by tractors, and the variety of native plants creates a diverse system of ecosystem functions. Additionally, the livestock that graze this land add organic matter and microorganisms to the soil which in turn benefits the plants on which they feed. The biocrusts in Muleshoe indicate that the soil is thriving and can assist in combating erosion all on its own.

Green grassy plants in sandy soil
Sparse plant life is able to receive nutrients due to microbial activity even in the west Texas desert. Credit: Hannah Decker

In west Texas, each organism plays a part in fighting against the climate they live in, and they all work together to create a healthy, balanced ecosystem. Working together, the plants, animals, and microorganisms create an ecosystem full of life in what may look like, but isn’t, a barren landscape.

Answered by Hannah Decker, Auburn University

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3 thoughts on “Are the west Texas rangelands barren?

  1. Hello Soilsmatter-Team,
    I like your blog very much, it is always very informative and one can read your Enthusiams literally. It’s really pleasure. It’s especially clever that you also send out the posts as newsletters. So you never miss any news. Thanks and keep up the good work! Many greetings Jenni from from Germany

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