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Plant Identification: Is It Worth the Effort?

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For the past two years, we have been printing a "Plant of the Month" section in the Ag News and Views to provide our readers with an idea of the diversity of local plant communities and the function that some of these plants serve. Also, we hope that we have conveyed that plant identification is important and actually worth the effort.

As natural resource managers, we must understand what we manage, and plant identification is a key component of that understanding. I say natural resource managers because in reality, whether you are a cow-calf producer, sheep and goat producer, wildlife manager, or manager of some combination of these enterprises, you should be paying close attention to what your management decisions are doing to the resources that support your enterprises: plants. After all, plants are what produce these products.

Dr. Dale Rollins, employed by the Texas Agricultural Extension Service in San Angelo, Texas, has coined what he calls Rollins's Rules of Plant Succession:

  1. know your plants, and
  2. know how to manipulate them.

To better understand what this means, let's take it one step at a time. The ability to know, or identify, plants allows us to assess many important rangeland or pasture variables that are critical to proper management: range condition, proper stocking rates, forage production, wildlife habitat quality, and rangeland trend, either upward or downward. Natural resource managers, especially those interested in grazing and wildlife management, must be able to evaluate the presence or absence of many plant species in order to assess these variables.

However, there is a bit more to knowing plants than identification. It is one thing to be able to identify a plant and quite another to know its uses or value as it relates to your goals. Greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox) is one good example (everyone picks on western ragweed, so I'll not use it this time). Let's say that we can identify greenbrier, that it is as recognizable to us as Indian blanket. Is it enough that we can identify it? Consider that, in north central Texas and south central Oklahoma, greenbrier is an important food source for white-tailed deer. Goats readily consume it. Cattle will eat young growth if they can get a bite. It can have crude protein content as high as 37 percent in the spring. The succulent green sprouts are great tossed in a salad (a.k.a. redneck alfalfa sprouts!). And if you have ever tried to hunt bobwhite quail in an area with greenbrier, you know it provides good escape cover as well.

Obviously, if your goals include wildlife management, having some greenbrier is a good thing. If you are strictly interested in cattle, you probably want to minimize greenbrier on your ranch. Keep in mind that I am picking on greenbrier; actually, there are many other plants (yes, besides western ragweed) that I could use as examples.

Know your plants and know how they fit your management goals. If your goal is to raise cattle and your pasture is a mono- culture of bermudagrass, then you probably won't have much trouble identifying plants, except, perhaps, invasive ones. However, if your goal is to raise livestock and manage wildlife on a pasture consisting of native plants, identifying plants will be much more important to you.

Now we are getting to the importance of knowing how to manipulate plants. We may be able to identify a plant and know what its uses or value is, but how valuable is that knowledge if we do not know how to manipulate the plant? Good managers are familiar with the tools needed to develop or maintain a desired plant community. A beef cattle manager will employ different management techniques, in keeping with the example of greenbrier, than a manager interested in goats and wildlife.

So, what are these techniques? Aldo Leopold summed it up very nicely for us in his Sand County Almanac. They are the axe, plow, cow, and fire. The tools we choose to use depend largely on the difference between the existing plant community and the plant community needed to achieve our goals. Identification and manipulation go hand in hand in ranch management. If you manage a cattle operation with a major wildlife enterprise and do not know the value of sand plum (Prunus spp.), how can you make a sound decision about its control? If you manage a cattle operation and do not know which forbs (weeds) are beneficial, how can you make a sound decision about spraying? If you are unable to assess the condition of your rangeland, how can you make a sound decision about prescribed fire? If you do not know the difference between silver bluestem (Bothriochloa laguroides) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), how can you determine proper stocking rates? Numerous points such as these can be made about the importance of knowing how to manipulate plants and plant communities.

Once you understand the importance of knowing your plants and how to manipulate them, you have to identify them. The first step is determining the plant type. There are three common types of plants: grasses, forbs, and woodies. Grasses are generally narrow-leaved, herbaceous (meaning soft-textured, or not woody) plants. Forbs are generally broad-leaved, herbaceous plants. Many people refer to many plants in this group as weeds. Woody plants generally have broad leaves as well but are woody. Trees, shrubs, and vines make up the majority of the woody group.

Fortunately, you don't need to identify every plant in an area, although it would be very gratifying. But good managers should be able to identify the major plants that are important to their enterprise goals, and of course, they should also know how to manipulate them. Luckily, this is not as difficult as it may seem. Generally, there is a specific group of grasses, forbs, and woody plants that dominates the native plant community of a particular area. These areas are usually referred to as range sites. Descriptions of these sites and the plants commonly associated with them can be found in your county soil survey, which is available from your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Usually, there are five to ten types of grasses, forbs, and woody plants that dominate a particular range site. If your ranch consists of one range site, you should learn about thirty plants. However, a ranch generally encompasses more than one range site, which may require your learning a few more plants.

"Know your plants and know how to manipulate them" is a power-packed phrase. For natural resource managers to be successful, it is a must. After all, next to sunlight and soil, plants form the base of all animal production pyramids.