Final Report for FNC08-736
The Switzer Ranch is a 12,000 acre family run operation. The ranch is a diversified operation with three main business lines; custom grazing, short-term cows, and a winter backgrounding operation.
Ten years ago the Switzer Ranch founded Calamus Outfitters as a means for the next generation to come back to live and work on the ranch. This tourism operation offers lodging, hunting, horseback riding, rivertrips, birdwatching and guided jeep tours.
The Switzer Ranch has strived for sustainable grazing systems by applying conservative stocking rates and employing a pair of 4 to 5 pasture deferred rotation grazing systems for the past 5 years. Other income streams were developed through the outfitting business including hunting and birdwatching that generate revenue while having a low impact on our natural resources.
1. Re-seed abandoned cropland back to native prairie grasses and forbs to enhance Prairie Chicken habitat (specifically a breeding ground found there).
2. Develop a nature trail to provide the public an opportunity to witness native and reclaimed prairie while learning about sustainable agriculture practices.
PROCESS: Re-seeding cropland back to native grasses and forbs.
1. Contacted experts in prairie chicken habitat and seed mixtures to determine what kind of seed mix would best apply for our goals.
2. Upon above advice, purchased two seed mixes; one mix containing low-mid-high vegetative structure for the majority of acres and another containing low vegetative structure for the lek area (the birds prefer shorter structure on booming grounds). Both mixes contained both grasses and forbs.
3. Drilled seed spring of 2010.
4. Unfortunately, the re-seeding did not respond as well as expected. We are determining if a re-application of seed is necessary for spring 2011. Another possible option is to employ a grazing strategy. We will be consulting our NRCS personnel and grazing professionals for advice here.
Developing a nature trail.
1. A suitable trail was mapped out on our ranch land that incorporated aspects we wished to highlight including native Sandhills prairie, re-claimed prairie, water features (one pond and one spring-fed creek) as well as various plants.
2. The trail was mowed and --foot gates-- were installed to allow passage through fences.
3. Metal signs were designed, purchased and posted along the trail.
4. A large trailhead sign was posted on the general store front.
5. Interviews were conducted with trail users. Based on this information the trail route was slightly altered in year 2.
6. It was apparent that most of our trail signs were not holding up to the elements as expected. In addition, some trail users remarked that the signs took away from the natural setting of the prairie, although admitted that some direction was necessary out on the trail. We tried a new material for the directional trail signs while our new plan is to alter our trail guide to include –stations-- that will correspond with numbers painted on large rocks placed strategically along the trail. The rocks will be less visible (less obtrusive) while still allowing direction and information along the trail.
7. The main trail head sign received positive feedback and catches many people’s attention as they enter the store.
• Bill Vodehnal (Nebraska Game & Parks) is an expert on Prairie Chickens. He performed a site visit to inspect the area selected for re-seeding and advised us on habitat needs of the birds.
• Scott Montgomery (NRCS) advised us on different seed mixes as well as the best time to plant. The NRCS office also mapped where to apply the two different seed mixes.
• Terry DeGroff (Integrated Management Systems) has been consulted to determine best grazing practices on the re-seeded area going forward.
• Dr. Lisa Pennisi (University of Nebraska-Lincoln-UNL) brought her eco-tourism class to the ranch to learn about the project and help design the nature trail. They offered several ideas during their visit.
• Tyler Sutton (Grassland Foundation) contributed in exploring eco-tourism ideas and how to market them.
• Wyatt Fraas (Center for Rural Affairs) was consulted to explore agri/eco-tourism possibilities as well as recommend other sustainable ranch practices that align with our family and business goals.
Re-seeding cropland back to native grasses and forbs.
Approx. 70 acres have been re-seeded back to native grasses and forbs. Although the initial seeding efforts did not grow as hoped, the overall objective (improving habitat for prairie chickens) has still been met. The area provides desirable structural diversity for both breeding and nesting cycles as well as an open grassland setting devoid of predator perches or fragmentation. We will continue to work to improve the quality of the grasses/forbs.
In April of 2010 we initiated a monitoring and mapping system to help us track information about prairie chickens in our area. The Switzer Ranch, along with two neighboring ranches began to identify leks (breeding grounds) and enter them into a GPS mapping system. A bird count was also conducted to establish a baseline. This count will be performed annually to note any changes.
For the particular prairie chicken lek in this project area we noted the presence of 12-15 males that consistently used the lek with 2-5 hens; some mornings hosted over 20 birds on the lek in 2009. Our monitoring for 2010 showed 19 males and 9 females (28 total birds) on a clear, sunny morning in April. We will perform our next bird count the first weekend of April 2011.
Developing a nature trail.
Our nature trail has received a lot of positive feedback. Many users expressed frustration from the lack of public trails in the area and were delighted to have the opportunity to explore native prairie. As noted previously, the trail route was altered after receiving user feedback (some felt the trails were too long or confusing in places).
The trail signs we purchased were quite disappointing as they did not hold up to even one summer season! This was a big surprise for us, however, we experimented with some new materials (see attached photo) and have a new plan that will be incorporated this summer season. The trail head sign is eye catching, simple to understand and placed in a prominent place.
We did not put user cards in accommodations as we found that personal interviews gleaned more information and we preferred the one-on-one discussions/relationships over impersonal comment cards. These discussions also allowed us to further educate users about the project and our conservation practices and goals.
The most important outcome of this grant was our own education. Our nature based tourism aspect has grown tremendously in the past two years. By becoming more aware of the current status of prairie chickens and their habitat needs our family has embarked on a real journey!
By creating another income stream through tourism (birdwatching), the prairie chickens immediately grew in value. Keeping healthy populations of the species became paramount to the ongoing success of the business. In 2009 the ranch zoned out a large portion of acres to become a private nature reserve. Bio-diversity goals were brought to the forefront while continuing ranching on the same land. The move has turned into a win-win as the nature reserve component complements the ecotourism business while tackling conservation issues. It is our hope that the combination of these enterprises—livestock production and nature tourism—will make the difference financially so the next generation can stay on the land.
Shortly after the creation of the private nature reserve, two of our family members embarked on a study trip to the African country of Namibia. The trip was sponsored by the Grassland Foundation and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and focused on the successful market based solutions to conservation found there. A neighboring rancher, Aaron Price, was already spending an extended time in Namibia as a WWF intern. Viewing the economic and rural development potential of nature based tourism models there sparked interest in the neighboring landowners to attempt a similar project back home in the Sandhills.
Three adjacent landholding families came together to discuss the role of birds on their respective ranches and the future of the greater Gracie Creek landscape as a whole. The Morgan Ranch, Price Gracie Creek Ranch and Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters made a commitment to one another to explore issues relating to grassland birds in efforts to maintain or restore their habitat. Together, the group applied and received the Important Bird Area designation from Audubon Nebraska (the first privately owned land in the state to do so). The Gracie Creek Landowners aspire to demonstrate how specific ranching practices may benefit the native habitat of grassland birds, specifically prairie chickens and grouse. In addition, the group believes that these conservation measures can be more effective and efficiently carried out when applied to a larger scale (three or more ranches instead of just one). We are now creating a collaborative management plan that focuses on how the three ranches can work together to create a large landscape that has the ability to support healthy populations of grassland birds, specifically prairie chickens.
So, as you can see, this –small-- grant project has snowballed into a much larger project that has reached out to our neighbors, community, state and even across the globe. It all started with a spark of interest to re-claim one prairie chicken lek!
Since 2008 we have increased our total revenue (for Calamus Outfitters) approx. 7 percent through our birdwatching diversification.
1. A volunteer day was held in April 2010 to perform the bird counts. This also included an informative meeting outlining the goals and progress of the project. We hosted 14 volunteers.
2. The first annual Nebraska Sandhills Grazing Systems and Grassland Bird Diversity Tour was held at our ranch June 2-3, 2010. This included approx. 75 participants from 5 different states. The Switzer Ranch (and this project) was highlighted and participants viewed birds on the project area as well as utilized the nature trail.
3. The Switzer family has presented several presentations where the project has been discussed. This includes: The 2010 Governor’s Conference on Eco-Tourism (approx. 150 people present), the national Watchable Wildlife Conference (approx. 25 present), NE State RCandD conference (approx. 80 present) and the NE Renaissance Project (approx. 100 present).
4. The Switzer family has also discussed the project with the majority of our birdwatching guests (approx. 800 people over the past two years) and our trail users (approx. 50 over the past two years).
5. We plan on holding another volunteer/field day this coming April to perform another birdcount and update on the project as a whole.