Off the Ranch Learning Opportunites

I have to say a big thank you to Luke and Lyle for letting me out of work to go to three neat events throughout the summer so far. The first was the Summer Grazing Tour in Nebraska put on by Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition and Nebraska Cattlemen, the second was the Bird Watching Tour put on by South Dakota Grassland Coalition, and finally the third was Rangeland Days which was put on by Jackson and Haakon County Conservation Districts, SDSU Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The Summer Grazing Tour in Nebraska was a great opportunity to learn about the different approaches conservation-minded ranchers can take to preserve and improve their ranches. The Gracie Creek Ranch grazes all year round and supplements the cattle when grass quality is lower than desired. This reduces their need for bales which saves them a lot of time over the summer months, and they actually graze their hay fields as if they were pasture land or sell it for a little extra income. They recently enrolled the entire ranch is USDA’s Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program to ensure the land is treated the right way for years to come. One thing they do exceptionally well on is drought planning. Every year 25% of their pasture is left to rest, or is deferred, during the growing season to ensure that there is always a good supply of grass for the coming year. They are not a traditional operation in the regards that they do not have cow calf pairs. They buy yearlings in the fall, feed them for a year, and then sell them the next fall. The heifers are spayed so they can stay in the same group as the steers. The yearlings are then divided into three size classes: the chicos, medianos, and grandes. Each group is moved to a new pasture every 1-2 days and each pasture gets grazed twice per year. A “take 1/4, leave 1/4” approach is used in their grass management because they believe it is better for the plants’ root systems which are essential in a dry climate. In the winter they can take a bit more when the grasses are dormant because it doesn’t hurt the roots as much. They use special software called “The Grazing Manger” that helps them determine when and where to move each of the three groups of yearlings.  The picture below is of some of the people who attended the tour.  There were approximately 250 attendees.

NE Grazing Tour

The Shovel Dot Ranch was the next stop on the grazing tour. Members of the Shovel Dot have attended holistic resource management schools which emphasize looking at the ranch as a whole, including the plants, soil, water cycle, cattle, and people, and they are employing these ideas of all of these things working together on their ranch. The Shovel Dot has turned to calving their cows later in the year which ultimately is good for them financially. The cows are able to get the best quality grass when they need it and the calves are able to get out on grass right away rather than waiting for it to green up. They have fenced out one mile of the river that runs through their property so the cattle do not damage the riparian area and water quality, and they have worked with the Nebraska Game and Parks Department to introduce geese and otters to the area. They are also focusing on pheasant and goose habitat on their land.  The picture below is of one of their pastures.  You can really see how sandy the Nebraska Sandhills actually are.

NE Sandhills

The University of Nebraska Barta Brothers Ranch has been used by students and staff of the University for research projects since 1998. The big research project that we heard about on the tour was plant, soil, and yearling weight response to different grazing systems on sub irrigated meadows. Some of the preliminary results showed that mob grazing created more trampling which incorporated more organic matter into the soil quicker. This is important for the soil’s ability to hold moisture, and can also reverse desertification. This study had been going on for three years now and so far there hasn’t been any differences in regards to soil carbon levels and soil microbial activity between the three grazing system treatments which were mob grazing, simple rotational grazing, and continuous grazing.

On the way back from the tour Lyle saw a rattlesnake sleeping on the highway.  I have never seen a rattler so we stopped, threw it into reverse, and looked at the snake.  Lyle wanted to know if I wanted my first rattle.  When I realized that meant killing the snake I said I could do without one.  Lesson of the day: you have to be in a pretty lowly populated area to be able to reverse on a state highway without any cars in the way.

DSC03304

The Bird Watching Tour was held at Rosemont Valley Farm near Montrose, SD, which is an operation that raises cattle and grows crops and vegetables. Most of the farm is composed of native pasture land. What I learned on this trip was how to use distinctive features of a bird to help me identify them, such as their size, shape of their body, flight patter, color, call, and what kind of habitat they are in. I learned that the major causes for grassland bird decline are habitat loss and habitat fragmentation which is mainly due to grassland being converted to cropland and exotic species being introduced. Another possible reason for their decline is that their entire population migrates to South America where the birds can be seen as a nuisance and are sometimes poisoned. As of 2009 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Breeding Bird Survey showed that 46 species of grassland birds were showing a decline.

Along with habitat fragmentation comes an increase in brown-headed cowbirds. The cowbird has been found to be increasing because it lays one egg per day in another bird’s nest and kicks out or pokes holes in the other eggs already in the nest, and then the original bird feeds the cowbird babies. They have been called “the mafia of the bird world”. These birds have also been found to destroy a nest that their egg has been removed from so that another bird will have to build another new nest. Cowbirds are especially attracted to shelterbelts and other wooded areas which is twice as detrimental for grassland birds because it is not the habitat they prefer.

Another topic of the bird tour was research. We were shown how to find nesting birds by having two people dragging a long rope between them. The birds would then flush up and by watching where they flew from you can then find the nest and count how many eggs are there and then come back to see if the nest was successful.

Bird Tour Nest Dragging

There was also someone there who had set up mist nets to catch birds as they are flying. The nets are very thin and hard to see and once the birds fly into them they usually can’t get out. I saw one bird that had flow into the net and that was then measured and banded as part of a research project. The bird was a trails flycatcher which is a small bird. The man banding the bird took its weight, approximate age, and gender and then put a small metal band with an identification number around its leg so if anyone ever caught it again they would know where it had been before. Before the bird was released it was laid on its back. This is not a natural position for the bird to be in so it just laid there calmly without so much as trying to wiggle a toe.

Bird Tour

Along with talking about birds on the bird tour, we also talked about grassland conservation. There was an entomologist there who talked about dung beetles which I learned are extremely beneficial to any ranching operation. When many people think of dung beetles they imagine a bug rolling a ball of manure. That is correct, but incomplete. The female dung beetle waits by her designated area while the male can search up to 100 yards away for a dung supply to make a ball from. He then wheels it over to his lady and she deposits one egg into the ball and then drops it down a hole. She can lay anywhere from 50 to 100 eggs and the male she picked has to go fetch her a dung ball. But the poor male, if he is not fast enough “forever and always” doesn’t mean so much. She will pick a new man if she gets tired of waiting around. A dung beetle herd is said to follow so closely behind a cow herd that within a minute of the patty hitting the ground there are dung beetles nearby ready to harvest it. Now, not only are the dung beetles using the manure as a pillow for their eggs, but they are also fighting against flies at the same time. When a patty hits the ground, flies are on it almost instantaneously and laying eggs. When the dung beetle comes and starts making tunnels in the patty, that drastically lowers the temperature and humidity levels where the fly eggs are laying. This then delays them from hatching for up to two months, and then by that time there are so many other factors that come into play that the fly eggs may not even be viable anymore. Finally, the dung beetle is great for soil health as well as being a natural insecticide. When the beetle digs the hole to drop the egg and dung ball into they are recycling organic matter and incorporating it further down into the soil. This speeds up the nutrient cycle which allows the plants to have more nutrients available and the soil to be able to hold more water.

The last trip I have been on was to Rangeland Days. This was a good experience for me because I have never had the opportunity to learn how to judge range conditions. It was interesting as well as practical. I learned how to calculate a similarity index which involves knowing what kind of landscape position the site is on, and what kinds of plants are there. Then you compare the plants that are there to what could grow there under optimal circumstances. This then gives you a number from zero to one hundred. A higher number means that more of the site is considered to have the optimal kinds and numbers of plants. I also became more familiar with range plants which is beneficial for me here on the ranch. There were some plants that I have seen before because we have them in Wisconsin, but many of the plants were brand new to me, so it will take a little while for me to be able to remember them all.

The NRCS put on a demonstration at Rangeland Days and at the Bird Tour called the "Runoff Simulator".  Someone goes out and collects several different chunks of dirt and vegetation.  These chunks fit into a pan that is two inches deep and approximately 15 x 20 inches and the soil and plants are not broken up or disturbed once in the pan.  The different samples they took were conventionally tilled soils, conservation-tilled soils, native rangeland, and rangeland with introduced vegetation.  Then they "make it rain" by turning on a rotating nozzle.  Any runoff would be collected in a jar and any infiltration would be collected in another jar.  

Runoff Simulator

The results were pretty astonishing.  Of course the conventionally tilled soil had a lot of very dirty looking runoff and little infiltration.  You could also see the erosion happening because the backboard of the contraption was white so you could see it gradually turning browner because the raindrops dislodge the soil particles.  The conservation-tilled soil held much more water and had very little runoff.  The picture below shows the difference between these two soils.  The conventional tilled soil is very dry while the conservation tilled soil held much of its moisture.

Runoff Simulator2

Another interesting result was that the pasture land with introduced vegetation did not hold as much water and was more prone to runoff than the native range land even though their plant densities were similar.  This could be because when non-native plants are introduced they are not compatible with the native soil microorganisms which therefore die off and contribute to poorer soil health.

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