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Rancher works to preserve Kansas' scenic Flint Hills

EMPORIA, Kan. (AP)--If you asked Jane Koger what she'd do if given the choice to go to heaven or stay in the Kansas Flint Hills, she'd tell you she'd rather stay in the Flint Hills.

Koger is the owner of the Homestead Ranch in Chase County, a 4,000-acre privately owned ranch. She has turned her love of the Flint Hills into a lifelong dedication to preserving the Flint Hills pristine ecosystem.

Koger launched the Homestead Range Renewal Initiative in 2003 and put together an advisory team of representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and The Nature Conservancy.

Also included in the advisory team are another Chase County rancher and a youth partner.

Koger and the advisory team have one purpose in mind--to implement new rangeland management techniques that include a patch-burn grazing system, fence removal, reseeding of native plants on previously cultivated land, management of invasive woody species and nonnative plants.

Koger said the goal of the HRRI project is to show that you can have it all and still preserve the native wildlife. She said after the end of the seven-year project, she hopes to be able to say the efforts worked. Koger is a rancher herself and grazes cattle, but also wants to make sure the native species can thrive.

"I want to (say) that you can have a Big Mac and ground nesting birds," she said.

Koger's efforts recently got a boost when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted Homestead Ranch a $50,000 private stewardship grant to aid in the project. Marva Weigelt, who does research and education for the HRRI project, submitted the grant.

"We are honored to get this grant," Weigelt said. "I said 'The money is here, let's bring it to the Flint Hills.' We are unique in that we are a private ranch that is willing to try something new and that is on the cutting edge."

One of the major goals of the project is tree removal. They have already started on this part, evident by a large row of trees that have been cut down and lay on the ground opening up the prairie where it once was fragmented by the large trees. About 62 percent of the funding requested under the grant was for tree removal. Tree encroachment reduces the amount of grazing land and puts grassland birds in danger by providing predators places to hide.

"Trees are a place where some of the predators hang out," Weigelt said. "The prairie chickens don't like to nest next to tall objects. They are the pickiest of all other birds."

Koger and Weigelt pointed out an area that had a view uninterrupted by trees. The birds could be heard chirping in the distance and butterflies flitted in and out of the grass. Many fences were taken down also to reduce the fragmentation they cause.

"That's what the tallgrass prairie should look like," Koger said as she pointed to hills dotted with cattle. "Just rolling hills. You won't get arguments with ranchers about tree encroachment."

Another part of the HRRI project is patch burning, which divides the acreage up and only burns certain areas each year instead of burning the whole area each year. This provides control of woody species as well as still meeting the needs of wildlife. The greater prairie chicken needs a football-sized patch of deep grass to nest in. Leaving some grass unburned provides the cover they need.

"We get really good grass management," Koger said.

Weigelt pointed out the difference between an area that had been patch burned and the area right next to it that hadn't been burned this year. The newer grass is a different shade of green and the cows prefer to graze on the grass that had been burned.

Weigelt compared the cattle's preference to human's preference to fresher food. She said if a bowl of old lettuce was sitting next to a bowl of new lettuce, humans would naturally prefer the fresher lettuce.

Patch burning also is closer to the natural way the pastures used to burn. The pastures would be struck by lightening and only certain areas would be burned. This allowed for a variety of results.

"If you burn it the same way each year you are going to get a sense of sameness," Weigelt said.

The grant money also will go toward reseeding the area with native plants including wildflowers, something they couldn't do without the grant funding.

"Native flower seed is incredibly expensive," Weigelt said.

Koger's dedication to preserving the ecosystem is carried over into her home that is located on the range.

The home is completely off the power grid with a wind turbine to generate electricity and solar panels. Koger didn't want power lines to interrupt the landscape. The house was built with native Indian grass from the area, which is inside the walls.

Date: 6/28/07

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