To explore and document new rangeland management techniques to create a sustainable management plan that renews the prairie while continuing to provide an economic return to family ranchers.
Homestead Ranch contains approximately 4,000 acres of tall grass prairie used exclusively for grazing cattle. For many years Jane has maintained a cow-calf operation (currently with 70 head). She also subleases 2,220 acres for double-stocked yearlings and 1,000 for full-season yearlings. A patch-burn grazing system is currently being tested on 2,900 acres of the ranch. The patch-burn grazing system was initiated in 2004 and will continue on an experimental basis for a 7-year period, at which time a final analysis of the method’s effectiveness will be undertaken.
The purpose of the Homestead Range Renewal Initiative (HRRI) is to explore and document new rangeland management techniques in an effort to create a sustainable grazing management plan that renews the prairie while continuing to provide economic return to family ranchers. The method being explored is a patch-burn grazing system described by Dr. Sam Fuhlendorf of Oklahoma State University. In initiating this study, Jane Koger recognized the value of preserving tallgrass prairie habitat, but knew first-hand how resistant many cattle ranchers are to changing practices based solely on ecological considerations. She felt it was important to test Dr. Fuhlendorf’s research assumptions in the practical setting of a working cattle ranch, with a program implemented by ranch staff rather than research professionals. Her hope is that this initiative, if successful, will provide a viable, economically-feasible model that encourages preservation of the tallgrass prairie by cattle ranchers. HRRI’s multi-faceted program – alternative grazing strategies, fence removal, a prescribed patch burning system, reseeding of native plants on previously cultivated land, and management of invasive trees – is an ecosystem approach to rangeland management that simultaneously considers biological diversity and grazing productivity.
PLANNING AND RESEARCH
Process: Since HHRI’s initiation in 2003, planning, decision-making and implementation have been based on a team approach. The HRRI seven-member advisory team will be described in the next section, PEOPLE.
Based on the research from Dr. Fuhlendorf, HRRI’s practices attempt to mimic as closely as possible the pre-European-settlement pattern of random burning and grazing – and the interaction between the two – creating an ever-changing combination of burned and unburned, grazed and ungrazed areas, often referred to as “a shifting mosaic.”
For the study, three native grass pastures (aprox. 960 acres/pasture) were mapped and divided into thirds for the purposes of conducting annual controlled burns by sector each spring. In 2004, the first year of implementing our seven-year experimental program, we burned two-thirds of each pasture to initiate transition to the new system. In 2005 and in subsequent years, one-third of each pasture is burned annually in spring on a rotational basis. Late-summer burns, when feasible will be used to control invasive trees and increase the mosaic effect. Due to wet weather, summer burns were not feasible in 2004 and 2005.
The method is being tested in three separate pastures with three different stocking scenarios:  double-stocked yearlings (April-July);  full-season yearlings (April-October); and  year-round cow-calf.
Monitoring activities for the study include:  annual breeding bird survey at the end of May;  fixed-point photography at six locations in each of the three pastures (two sample points in each of the three burn sectors per pasture in May, July, and September);  cattle production rate data collection; and  other data collection.
Exhibit A on pages 3 and 4 shows the locations for fixed photo points and patch burn sectors. The monitoring activities will be explained in greater detail in RESULTS.
[Editor’s Note: For copies of the exhibits, figures, and photos mentioned in this report, please contact the NCR-SARE office at: email@example.com or 1-800-529-1342.]
As noted earlier, this project is guided by a seven-member advisory team, including:
Jane Koger, Project Manager, Homestead Ranch
Marva Weigelt, Research, Homestead Ranch
James Minnerath, Partners for Fish & Wildlife Biologists, U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Gay Spencer, District Conservationist, Natural Resource Conservation Service
Brian Obermeyer, Director, Flint Hills Initiative, The Nature Conservancy
Leigh Ann Crofoot, Ranch Consultant, Chase County Rancher
Jim Lauer, HHRI Youth Partner, Chase County
Members of this group attend two formal planning meetings each year and participate in a variety of field activities. Jane Koger, Marva Weigelt, James Minnerath, Brian Obermeyer and Jim Lauer conducted the annual breeding bird survey in May. Brian Obermeyer and Leigh Ann Crofoot assisted Jane and Marva with patch burning in spring. Gay Spencer provided technical assistance and procurement of native grass seed for the reseeding project in May. Jim Lauer also assisted with fixed point photography.
Other key participants included Sherry Leis, Missouri Department of Conservation, who volunteered her patch-burning expertise and labor, as well as her interest and expertise in Greater Prairie Chicken conservation, and Iralee Barnard, a botanist and consultant to the National Park Service at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, who initially assisted us in establishing and implementing our fixed point photography method and who returned in 2005 to monitor our methods.
Since controlled patch burning is a significantly more labor-intensive process than the traditional burns conducted in this area, we have been strategic in asking for the cooperation of neighboring landowners and pasture managers. The following individuals have been supportive in helping us to protect the sectors slated to remain unburned each year: T.W. Burton, Bobbie Hammond, Chip Hammond, Mary Harwood, Cliff Cole, Alan Phipps, Larry Pinkston, and Tracy Talkington. It is of note that this effort to secure cooperation from neighbors also naturally became an education and outreach activity as we answered their questions about our new management practices.
Along similar lines, because patch burning provides such visible evidence of a new practice (i.e., the traditional method is to burn all grazing land in the spring, so our unburned sectors stand out quite noticeably), we have had several other landowners stop by to ask us why we only burned parts of our pastures, which provided another opportunity to explain the goal and rationale of sustainable practices.
Patch Burning. The potential impact of the accepted local practice of extensive spring burning on prairie wildlife – especially birds – become graphically clear to us when we conducted a visual survey of an eighty-square-mile sample surrounding the HRRI study area in the spring of 2005. The mapping (Fig. 1) revealed more than ninety percent of available grassland had been burned by May 1, leaving minimal cover for small mammals and ground-nesting birds during a critical time in their breeding season. We also noted that intensive grazing by a popular stocking system that doubles the number of head recommended per acre during a shortened season (late April to mid to late July), left minimal loafing and escape cover until late in the season. In addition, the repeated use of this or any uniform approach over a period of years is likely to gradually reduce the diversity of native plant species, which has negative implications not only for ecosystem health, but also for livestock production.
HRRI’s approach is to balance the goal of promoting biological diversity with the more traditional aim of grazing productivity. Preliminary results from project monitoring seem to indicate that the patch-burn grazing system provided a means to achieve both of these goals.
Breeding Bird Survey. The survey is conducted annually at each of 8 survey points, which include both burned and unburned areas within one pasture in the study area. A timed, 3-minute sampling of bird calls and sightings is recorded at each survey point.
Although conclusive data will not be available until the last phase of the study is completed in 2010, preliminary findings are encouraging. Our second spring breeding bird survey in May 2005 showed an increase in bobwhite, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, and greater prairie chicken. Most heartening was the first-time appearance of Henslow’s sparrow. This habitat specialist is a unique harbinger of prairie integrity, requiring unburned, lightly grazed native prairie; the species is largely intolerant of frequent burning, intensive grazing, or excessive encroachment of woody vegetation.
While the preliminary assumption is that we saw an increase in certain birds because there was increased habitat in the unburned areas, we cannot draw any clear conclusions until we’re farther out from our baseline data. An unexplained decrease in two species of ground-nesting birds – dickcissel and upland sandpaper – affirms the importance of additional data.
The purpose of taking photographs at fixed points over time is primarily to provide a visual reference for the impact of burning and grazing treatments from year to year and at different points in the growing and grazing seasons. Five photographs are taken at each fixed point: 1 meter, 10 meter, landscape #1, landscape #2, and an “aerial” shot of the 1 meter plot.
Again these data are not conclusive at this point, but will become increasingly valuable as a method of monitoring the impact of management practices. The following exhibits show the data collected at two photo points in July of 2005, one in a burned sector and the other in an unburned sector, both from the McDowell Pasture. What is clearly seen is that the burned area is grazed preferentially over the unburned area.
Cattle Production Data. From the standpoint of other ranchers who may be convinced to try the patch-burn grazing method in the future, cattle production data is perhaps the most important. Thanks to the careful record-keeping and cooperation of our primary leasee, we have ten years of data from prior to initiation of the experiment. However, we cannot draw any conclusions from current data because, on the recommendation of The Nature Conservancy, we have elected to reduce stocking rates by 15% for the first three years of the experiment. Funding to offset the loss of lease income has been provided by a grant from the Department of Defense Legacy Resource Management Program procured by The Nature Conservancy on our behalf.
Based on Dr. Fuhlendorf’s experimental work and our understanding of the value of plant diversity to animal nutrition, we fully expect that over time our data will show that cattle gain just as well or better on the patch-burn system. Fortunately, our leasee sees the potential value of the experimental system and is willing to continue pasturing his stocker cattle here. A possible additional benefit for our year-round cow-calf herd is that the increasing diversity of plant material may allow us to decrease the amount of supplemental nutrition we normally provide during the dormant season.
Fence Removal. One task during the early phase of HHRI implementation has been to remove fence in order to create larger pastures. By taking down interior fences in two pastures, we were able to create three pastures of roughly the same area for use under three different stocking scenarios during the experiment. Incidental benefits of fence removal include reduction of trailing and erosion along the former fence lines, as well as less fence to maintain.
Of note in this discussion is the fact that patch-burning naturally guides grazing. Our cow-calf herd, for example, spent the bulk of the spring and summer in the burned sector of the pasture, but gravitated to the unburned sectors as the amount of forage in the burned sector declined in the late fall. Since only one-third of the pasture was burned in the spring, this means that two-thirds of the pasture contains forage for dormant-season grazing.
Reseeding. Approximately 60 acres of bottom ground along a creek had formerly been planted in brome and alfalfa for haying. For the last eight years these fields had not been plowed, planted, hayed or burned and had overgrown with invasive woody species. In April 2005 the fields were sprayed with herbicide, and in May of 2005 they were mowed and then reseeded to native grass with a no-till drill rented form the NRCS. The seed mix was recommended and procured from Sharp Bros. Seed Co. through advisory team member Gay Spencer, NRCS District Conservationist. The seed mix contained grasses specifically chosen for tallgrass prairie and included: Big Bluestem, Yellow Indiangrass, Sideoats Grama, Little Bluestem and Switchgrass. The native grass seed application rate was recommended by advisory team member James Minnerath of U.S. Fish & Wildlife at a higher than normal rate in hopes of growing a thicker stand of grass (fuel) for burning to expedite reduction of invasive trees along the creek.
These fields, after several cycles of burning, will be incorporated into the Bell Pasture in the spring of 2008.
Tree Removal. The tallgrass prairie, positioned on the eastern flank of our nation’s grasslands, is closest to the forest and always vulnerable to invasion by trees. Patches of woodland that have escaped fire here in the Flint Hills have enlarged by 250 percent since the 1850s. The long-term sustainability of tallgrass prairie grazing land is dependent upon tree control, much of it by fire and the rest by strategic mechanical tree removal.
Two wet summers in a row have prevented us from employing the strategy of a late-summer burn along the margins of the creeks in order to control tree encroachment. However, we have gradually been removing trees mechanically, starting with those in the middle of pastures and those encroaching on pasture edges. These trees are cut, piled and then burned during the winter when fire safety is less of an issue.
Other data. As noted in our SARE grant application, recent research has shown that traditional rangeland management techniques are not geared toward maintaining biological diversity, but rather, favor the most productive forage species for domestic cattle. Although the long-term impact of this approach is not fully known, indicators such as the decline in grassland bird populations and the increase in invasive trees point toward a decline in the overall health of our nation’s remaining grasslands. Among the undervalued components of the tallgrass prairie’s plant community are the native forbs, a number of which are actually palatable and nutritious for cattle. As part of our ongoing data collection, we have begun tracking the appearance of forbs during the months they bloom, as shown in Exhibit C.
Traditional range management and, in many cases, range research, has long held beef production as the overarching goal, with little consideration given to long-term sustainability and diversity of native prairie. To make the philosophical transition from managing exclusively for cattle (short-term profit) to managing for the health of the prairie as a diverse and complex system (long-term sustainability) is a rather radical shift that brings about change at many levels. Launching this experiment has affected our thinking and planning in rather dramatic ways, and set us apart from our more traditional neighbors.
Our overarching goal in making such a significant investment of time, labor and money to test an ecologically-based management practice is to lead the way for other ranchers to adopt the techniques. We understand from out own experience in out community that ecological considerations alone are not likely to be sufficient motivation for change among traditional ranchers. However, we do have high hopes that others might be willing to consider a proven double bottom line approach that allows them to do good for the environment while continuing to do well in the cattle business.
A seven-year program is not for the faint of heart! Trying a new technique calls for courage. Conducting applied research on a working cattle ranch with untrained (and many times volunteer) personnel calls for audacity and a willingness to learn many new skills. Waiting for sufficient data to support conclusions requires patience. Achieving consensus among seven members of an advisory team – each with their own agenda – is challenging. Taking (not to mention organizing and labeling) 270 fixed-point photographs each year is daunting (that’s 1890 photographs over the course of the Initiative). Finding time to manage the additional record keeping and analysis for the experiment, as well as bookkeeping and reporting for funding from outside sources like SARE, taxes our modest human resources on the ranch.
The rewards, fortunately, are sufficient to fuel the endeavor. Becoming more intent observers of the prairie community – grasses, forbs, insects, birds and other wildlife – has opened new dimensions to us and facilitated a far greater understanding of natural cycles and connections, Getting down on hands and knees three times a year at eighteen photo points cultivates an intimacy with the land that can never be achieved from the back of a horse or the seat of an all-terrain vehicle. Encounters – both planned and unforeseen – with persons who share our interests and concerns or who can provide insights that we might not otherwise have considered, are encouraging. Even the questions of skeptical neighbors are cause for optimism that the experiment is a worthwhile undertaking.
Realistically, we understand that other ranchers who might one day adopt the patch-burn grazing method because of this experiment may not necessarily undergo the same extensive paradigm shift that we’ve experienced. If, however, our example is instrumental in convincing others to try more sustainable methods, we will count this initiative as a success.
We also understand that ranchers are unlikely to adopt this model if it is not practical. Future users of the method will not need to conduct fixed-point photography or breeding bird surveys. They will, however, have the additional burden of expense for the more labor-intensive patch burning and tree control. One of our aims in applying for funding from programs like SARE and working with agencies like NRCS and U.S. Fish & Wildlife and organizations like The Nature Conservancy is to be able to broadcast the sustainable practices along with technical assistance and funding tools that make implementation practical.
Along these same lines, we have also taken the significant step of putting eighty percent of the ranch into a Conservation Easement through The Nature Conservancy and the Farm & Ranchland Protection Program (completed), and an additional fourteen percent in the Grassland Reserve Program (pending). The use of these programs reflects our long-term commitment to the tallgrass prairie as a landscape and ecosystem worthy of preservation. At the same time, these programs also represent other tools for funding sustainable practices that have a higher cost than current methods. This, again, is the double bottom line in action – doing good while doing well.
We look forward with high hopes to 2010, the final year of the Homestead Range Renewal Initiative. Even though we have very little evidence to prove that we are on the right track, our intuition tells us that the choice to consider the land’s long-term health along with the profitability of our cattle operation must surely be a step in the right direction.