Sandhills ranches maintained for future generations
By Doug Rich
A long line of trucks snaked its way through the Nebraska Sandhills as the Summer Grazing Tour began June 11 on the Gracie Creek Ranch. The tour, which was sponsored by the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition and the Nebraska Cattlemen, also made stops at the Shovel Dot Ranch, Twin Creek Ranch, and the University of Nebraska Grazing Research Center at the Barta Brothers Ranch.
Gracie Creek Ranch is operated by Bob Price, his son, Aaron, his daughter, Lindsey Smith, and her husband, Clayton. The ranch, located northwest of Burwell, Neb., follows a year-round planned grazing system, supplementing when needed and using minimal harvested feed. Bob Price became interested in Holistic Resource Management in the 1980s and began making changes to their grazing system. The Price family believes that stewardship is compatible with agricultural production.
Lindsey Smith said the ranch is divided into 115 pastures using permanent and electric fencing. Buried pipelines carry water from submersible pumps to all of the pastures. Their grazing season runs from May 1 to April 30.
Smith said they defer about 25 percent of the ranch every year in June, July, and August. She stressed that this is total deferment. There is nothing on those acres during that time period. In 2012 they deferred 8,000 acres and this year they will defer 7,000 acres.
Last year Gracie Creek Ranch had a total of 10.96 inches of rain. This year they anticipated 25 percent less forage production and compensated for that by selling their calves this spring rather than holding them over the summer to sell as heavy yearlings. The moisture situation is a little better this year. By the second week of June they had received 9.5 inches of rain.
The ranch’s main production goal is to promote grassland conservation through a profitable planned grazing system that allows for optimum levels of production and environmental services. Bob Price describes it as ranching to conserve and conserving to ranch.
Maintaining their land as a working ranch for generations to come is an important part of their business plan. Recently the Price family enrolled the entire ranch in the USDA Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program. According to the USDA “The Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland in agricultural uses. Working through existing programs, USDA partners with state, tribal or local governments and non-governmental organizations to acquire conservation easements or other interests in land from landowners. USDA provides up to 50 percent of the fair market easement value of the conservation easement.”
Passing the ranch onto future generations was a topic at the Shovel Dot Ranch, as well. Benjamin Franklin Buell homesteaded in southern Rock County, Neb., in 1882 and started what would become the Shovel Dot Ranch. Homer Buell and his brother, Larry, were the fourth generation of the Buell family to manage the ranch. Together they operated the ranch as a partnership until 2009 when they divided the ranch to facilitate the generational transfer of the ranch.
Today Homer Buell, his wife, Darla, their son, Chad, and his wife, Tricia, run the Shovel Dot Ranch. Larry Buell, his wife, Nickie, their daughter, Devon, and her husband, Kelby, operate the newly created Twin Creek Ranch.
Each ranch has around 15,000 acres and is a cow-calf, backgrounding, yearling operation that stresses the management of native grasses.
“We didn’t work our whole lives just to see it all go up in smoke,” Larry Buell said. “We wanted to pass it along.”
Both of these ranches are operated in a similar manner. They use rotational grazing, cross fencing, water pipelines, calving later in the season, winter grazing, and close monitoring of pastures to improve the quality and quantity of their native grass pastures.
Homer Buell said in the 1980s they became interested in Holistic Ranch Management and attended a school put on by the Society for Range Management. During that time eight ranches formed a Ranch Management Club. This group met several times a year to share information and talk about what was working or not working on their ranches.
All three of the ranches on the tour use the Grazing Manager software developed by Texas A&M. Lindsey Smith at Gracie Creek Ranch said even through the software program is nearly 20 years old it is still very useful for total grass management.
Chad Buell at the Shovel Dot Ranch said he started using the software in 2000 and it has become one of their biggest resources.
“We can look at how we are affecting the pastures over time with the software,” Chad Buell said.
The last stop on the tour was the Barta Brothers Ranch. Clifford and Jimmy Barta gifted this 5,300-acre ranch to the university of Nebraska Foundation in 1992. University of Nebraska-Lincoln began research trials on the ranch in 1998. Jerry Volesky, UNL Extension range and forage specialist, and Walter Schacht, UNL professor of Range and Wildlife Management, discussed two ongoing research projects at the Barta Brothers Ranch.
The first project is looking at the grazing system effects on Plant Community Composition, productivity and carbon storage in the Nebraska Sandhills. The objective is to compare effects of continuous and rotational grazing strategies at moderate and high stocking rates and no grazing on above-ground primary production, botanical composition and plant diversity, long-term effect on sol carbon, and grazing distribution.
The second project is exploring the grazing strategy effects on ecology and production of Sandhills meadows. The objective is to compare mob grazing, simple rotational grazing, continuous grazing and haying on harvest efficiency, above ground plant production, yearling cattle performance, root production, litter decomposition rate, and soil microbial composition.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.