Going Native

“We’re saving millions of gallons of water on this grass, and we are cutting our use of equipment and fuel.”

- Mike Mercer, Arizona Rancher

Long ago in southern Arizona, the Hohokam people tapped the waters of the San Pedro River to irrigate their food crops. Today, so does third generation rancher Mike Mercer. Though Mercer runs a modern cattle operation—with tractors and center pivot irrigation rigs—you might say he’s gone “native.”

Eyes squinting in the mid-morning sun, Mercer jabs his boot at a clump of emerging grass. “Plains lovegrass is my favorite,” he says. “I’d like to grow more of that.”

Mercer’s ranch is nestled in the shadow of the Galiuro Mountains near the tiny town of Mammoth.

“There were Hohokam camps on all these buttes overlooking the river,” said Mercer. Below the most prominent of these buttes— Sombrero Butte—Mercer, like the Hohokam before him, is raising a crop on the river’s floodplain.

His 75-acre field is “greening up” with 14 native grasses, including Arizona cottontop, sacaton and plains bristlegrass.

Conserving Water and Growing Food in the Desert

Mercer began planting the native grass seed in the spring of 2008, purchased with financial assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. The Conservancy helped secured the financing.

The switch to native grass—after years of growing non-native sudangrass and sorghum grain—has been a big win for Mercer, and for the environment.

He estimates he uses about half the water that his father did. The perennial grass, once established, is low maintenance: No need for annual plowing, re-seeding or harvesting, except for occasional baling of some of the grass for feeding elsewhere on the ranch.

Using hay from these native grasses creates a new seed source in the grazed uplands, as the cattle spread the seed through their manure.

“We’re saving millions of gallons of water on this grass, and we are cutting our use of equipment and fuel,” says Mercer, whose family has ranched here since the 1920s.

The Land Responds

The switch to native grass wasn’t risk free. The first year, coming off a decade of drought, “the grass didn’t look that great. I was sweating it. But I decided to plant some more last year, and so far this year, it’s really taking off.”

The land is responding in kind. “Since we planted this I’m seeing less run-off of water, because the grasses are helping the ground soak it up. I figure if times get tough again and there isn’t enough water in the river to irrigate, this seed will just go dormant and then sprout when the moisture is available again.”

Mercer learned of the Partners program through Rob Burton, the Conservancy’s former Lower San Pedro preserve manager. Rob had planted the grasses at the preserve,  restoring what were once catfish ponds.

“We’re pleased at how well this has worked out,” says Kris Randall, state coordinator for the Arizona Partners program. “Grasslands are a declining plant community in Arizona. We are interested in providing financial and technical assistance to private landowners who want to do restoration projects.”

Dan Wolgast, who now manages some of the Conservancy’s properties, echoes the benefits of native grasses. “We’ve had some successes and challenges, but this grass is helping us control weeds. It’s very adaptable to unpredictable weather systems, and it’s a good thing for the river because it improves the health of the floodplain,” says Wolgast.

Seeding the Future

Something as seemingly simple as planting native grass is actually part of a paradigm shift for the Mercers. Not only is it a change in how they operate, but also who they work with.

One change is the market for their beef. By feeding their cattle native grass, the Mercers are tapping into the grass-fed, locally grown beef market. The Mercers sell their beef—under the name Sombrero Butte Beef—at local farmers’ markets and at a gourmet Tucson restaurant.

Mercer’s cattle are Brahman cows bred by Angus-Charolais bulls, which makes them genetically well suited for the desert; they withstand heat well, according to Mercer, and they eat desert plants like cat claw, cholla and jojoba leaves. Two months before they are butchered, Mercer grazes them on the native grasses to tenderize their meat.

“My cows love it,” he says. “They see me coming to open the gates, and they run to get there.”

Grazing issues have historically been a point of contention between ranchers and conservationists. The Conservancy, in Arizona and around the country, has been working to improve its relationships with those who produce the food we eat.

Mike Mercer’s willingness to work with the Conservancy signifies a sea change for his family. In the early 1990s, Mike’s father, Virgil, filed an appeal with the Bureau of Land Management to gain grazing access to the Conservancy’s public land leases at Aravaipa Canyon Preserve and the Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area. The Conservancy found itself on the opposite side from the Mercers in the judicial process. That appeal was tied up within the BLM for several years, and Virgil didn’t prevail.

So, the result has been that the Conservancy and BLM have continued a limited grazing regime at Aravaipa and no grazing at the Muleshoe in order to restore the properties. In the meantime, Virgil passed away in 2006, and his son Mike took over the ranch. Now he not only actively works with the Conservancy, he is also our neighbor—the Conservancy manages the 3,100-acre 7B Ranch adjacent to the Mercer property.


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