Diversification of Income through Land Diversification
Hosted Bill Vodehnal of the NGPC, who is an expert in Prairie Chicken habitat, for a day visit to assess the current habitat of the Prairie Chicken lek [breeding ground] and to give his recommendations for restoration.
Worked under the advisement of Terry DeGroff, DVM to plan how to use the planned restored acres for sustainable grazing.
Discussed different eco-tourism possibilities and options with Tyler Sutton (Grassland Foundation) and Wyatt Fraas (Center for Rural Affairs) and hosted each at the ranch.
Invested grant funds to purchase nature trail signs. This includes one large “Trailhead” sign that is posted at the beginning of the trail and shows the entirety of the trail system as well as pertinent landmarks such as a pond, creek, etc. and ten smaller signs along the actual trail. These smaller signs have information and directions.
Invested in five new posts for nature trail signage; three have been installed and two are waiting for another new sign before installation. We were able to re-use some of the old posts along the trail and used grant funds to purchase small hardware (new screws/nails) to hang the new signs.
The nature trail was maintained through the summer by keeping the path mowed and free of obstacles, as well as sign maintenance.
Fall 2009 we hosted Dr. Lisa Pennisi’s Eco-tourism class (UNL) for a day. They studied the nature trail, the reasons for implementation, and our promotion of it. They took this on as a class project to devise more ways to improve/promote the nature trail.
Grant funds were also dispensed to Sarah Sortum for her work on researching and planning the nature trail, corresponding with experts and inviting them out to the ranch, designing and implementing trail signs and interviewing visitors and users.
We have successfully determined the nature trail’s course through our property as well as outlined possible additions in the future. The nature trail is clearly outlined in the trailhead sign, which is placed at the beginning of the trail (the trail starts at our general store/office building so virtually all of our visitors and guests see it).
The trail itself is clearly marked and easy to follow, taking users through native Sandhills prairie, restored grassland, along beautiful Gracie Creek (which boasts beaver dams and abundant wildlife) and climbing a few hills for wonderful vistas.
Through interviews with users of the trail we have learned if our signs are effective/helpful, if our maintenance of the trail is acceptable and if the trail is interesting to the users. After visiting with several users we have found that we may need to change one sign to better define the trail. Our maintenance (mainly keeping the trail mowed) was helpful and appreciated (people were glad not to have to walk thru tall grass with bare legs). Comments about the trail path were very positive and users appeared quite interested in the content of the trail. It seemed that users of the trail also became interested in other aspects of the ranch operation and started to ask more questions regarding our reasons for land diversification. We always welcome any opportunity to educate our visitors/guests so were pleased with this reaction.
By visiting with experts about Prairie Chicken habitat we have learned what these birds desire for both their breeding and nesting phases. Since we are restoring acres that contain a lek, we have ascertained which seed mix will be best to plant there to encourage the continued use of the lek. We have also learned how we can manage our grazing to further produce the desired habitat (structural heterogeneity) for the breeding and nesting seasons.
We also established a ‘baseline’ of the Prairie Chickens that used the lek in 2009. From mid-March to May 1st there was consistently between 12 to 15 males that used the booming grounds. April and May brought 2-5 hens in most mornings. A few mornings there were even over 20 total birds on the lek. These numbers will be compared to future numbers after the restoration of the lek area is complete.
WORK PLAN FOR 2010
We will re-seed the acres outlined in the project proposal with a native grass/forb mix in the spring, 2010 (probably May). We will continue to monitor Prairie Chicken numbers on the lek to determine if there are any significant differences before and after the restoration.
We will make a few minor changes to the nature trail based on past user interviews as well as purchase one more large sign to put up along Hwy. 96 to advertise to the general public. A few signs may also need to be replaced due to weather/animal deterioration. These will be purchased with grant funds if there is any money left after the re-seeding project.
After we review the results of the UNL Eco-tourism class project that focused on our nature trail and our promotion of it we will then decide on other measures. One aspect of this will be the interpretive brochure that will be available to accompany trail users. An area for user comments may be included on this brochure.
Once the trail is complete, we will take photos along the trail to post on our websites to further advertise and inform potential users.
We shared our project in a variety of ways. We hosted the UNL Eco-tourism class which was interested in why we are diversifying land use and how we are accomplishing that. In the spring of 2009 we hosted the Grasslands of the World meeting that brought people from Africa, South America, Canada, Mongolia and the United States to our ranch where we informed them of our land diversification projects and goals. We have further explained our goals to visitors and users of the trail through interviews and casual conversation.
Our ranch and family business, Calamus Outfitters, have been featured in both Nebraska Life and Working Ranch magazines. Although the specific details of this project were not discussed, our efforts of diversifying our income through land diversification were a main theme.
We are slated to be the focus of an article in the Omaha World Herald this spring. This article will also feature our eco-tourism efforts.
We have also shared information about our efforts through our brochures and websites, as well as discussing the project with the many birdwatchers we hosted. We hope to continue to discuss our past and future efforts with our visitors firsthand, as well as improve our website page(s) and informational brochure.
Discussing our project with our neighbors has also been a great opportunity. We are now conversing about a variety of conservation projects on a landscape scale that have the potential to benefit multiple landowners. This is a continuing conversation; we have already hosted an expert to perform a stream assessment and have looked at stream restoration possibilities amongst three neighboring landowners. Other conservation and eco-tourism projects are currently being discussed and actions will be taken in 2010 to support some of these ideas that have grown out of this “small” project.