This wild mustang mare is part of a herd relocated to Pioneer Ranch in Hepler, Kan., as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to curb overpopulation in western states. She and the other horses graze some of the 2,500 acres of native tallgrass prairie that remain on the ranch.
Dean Hoener, right, Pioneer Ranch manager, inspects a recently burned prairie pasture with Joe Murphy, left,
MFA livestock key account manager, and Hunter Walls,manager of MFA’s AGChoice location in Hepler. This320-acre field was burned April 4, along with another 580 acres on April 11. Hoener said the ranch typically usescontrolled fires on the prairie ground every three years.
Hoener, who was raised on a cow-calf farm, has been with Pioneer Ranch since 2004. He manages the backgrounding operation for owner Jim Keller, whose children, Jocelyn and Landon, also work on the ranch along with three other employees.
Yearling cattle are continually flowing in and out of Pioneer Ranch, arriving at 600 to 750 pounds and backgrounded until they reach 925 pounds. Fescue pastures like this one make up most of the ranch’s grazing grounds, complemented by native warm-season prairies that fill the forage gap during the summer months. The cattle on fescue are supplemented with a ration that includes an MFA feedlot concentrate, while the groups kept on the native grasses do not need extra feed to gain the same amount of weight.
Prescribed burning is one of the most important practices used by farmers, landowners and conservation groups to manage prairie and grasslands. The fires, when properly planned and conducted, help the native plants regenerate while controlling unwanted weeds, brush and trees.
Tallgrass prairie once covered more than 170 million acres of the United States, stretching from Indiana to Kansas and from Canada to Texas.
The rich soil of the region is only rivaled by the rich natural and cultural history of the prairie, a complex ecosystem of diverse forages, forbs and wildlife.
Nearly all of this native grassland is now gone, plowed under for agriculture or urban development. In fact, less than 4% of original tallgrass prairie remains today, most of it in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. This unique area, named for the chert or flint eroded from the bedrock that lies near or at the surface, nurtures some of the greatest biological diversity in the world.
On the 9,000-acre Pioneer Ranch, situated just outside the Flint Hills near Hepler, Kan., about 2,500 acres of native prairie endure. Flourishing with tallgrass species such as little bluestem, big bluestem and Indiangrass, among others, these prairie remnants are carefully managed through grazing and burning—just like they have been for thousands of years.
“It’s just good to have some native grass around,” said Dean Hoener, Pioneer Ranch foreman. “There’s not much of it left around here anymore. We’re trying to preserve what we’ve got.”
Prairie persists here mainly because much of the terrain is more suited to cattle than crops. When settlers discovered that their livestock gained weight easily on the native grasses, the Flint Hills became known as ideal grazing land. Ranching continues to be the primary agricultural use of remaining tallgrass prairie.
Hoener manages Pioneer Ranch for owner Jim Keller, who runs the backgrounding operation with his children, Landon and Jocelyn. Yearling calves are brought to the ranch in the 600-pound to 750-pound range, kept for about 180 days and then shipped to feedlots in Kansas and Nebraska. At any given time, some 4,500 cattle are grazing both native prairie and fescue pastures on the ranch. The combination of warm-season and cool-season forages provides almost year-round grazing.
“When the fescue is going dormant, coming out of spring into early summer, the native grass is just hitting its stride,” said Joe Murphy, MFA livestock key account manager who serves the Hepler area. “And then when you’re running out of native grass in July and August and going into September, the fescue is starting to come on again for the fall. They work well together.”
Like the pioneers who first tamed this land for grazing, Hoener has found that cattle perform well on native warm-season grasses as their sole food source. Grazing prairie during the summer avoids problems with fescue toxicity in livestock. Abundant protein in the prairie plants also provides high-quality nutrition that supports strong weight gain. In contrast, the stockers kept on Pioneer Ranch’s fescue pastures must be supplemented with a daily ration of wet distillers’ grains, corn, straw and MFA feed concentrate.
“We don’t have to feed anything else when they’re on the prairie,” Hoener said. “The cattle will gain between 1.5 to 2 pounds a day. We have to feed the ones on fescue to get that much gain out of them.”
Although native prairie grasses have a shorter grazing season than fescue—from about the first of May until early August—they have a number of advantages. They tend to need less fertilizer and lime than cool-season grasses, yet they yield as much or more per acre. Hoener said the ranch can maintain a stocking rate of one calf per 1.5 acres on prairie pastures. Plus, he said, the cattle on native grasses tend to have slicker, shorter hair coats than those grazing fescue.
The deep root systems of native warm-season grasses make efficient use of water and soil nutrients, so they can handle drought well. They also grow in harmony with legumes and other native forbs, which are beneficial to livestock and wildlife.
For the past year, Pioneer Ranch has shared its grazing grounds with a herd of wild horses, relocated here from federal land in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and other areas of the western United States. In effort to ease overcrowding, the federal Bureau of Land Management contracts with landowners and ranchers to accept shipments of the mustangs and care for them for the rest of their lives. To help manage overpopulation, herds are separated into groups of mares or gelded stallions before being transported to their new ranch homes. The mustangs on Pioneer Ranch are all mares.
“I’ve been around horses my whole life, but never wild horses,” Hoener said. “They aren’t as hard to manage as you’d think. They pretty much just take care of themselves. When we get snow and there’s no grass, we’ll feed them some hay. We make sure they’ve got something to eat and something to drink. If we do everything right, they’ll be here until they die.”
Much like the mustangs, the ranch’s prairieland is fairly low-maintenance, Hoener said. He sprays for weeds when needed and fertilizes according to soil test recommendations. And every few years, he sets the fields on fire.
It’s nature’s way of starting over.
Whether sparked by lightning or caused by humans, fire has always been essential to maintaining native prairie in its natural and diverse state. Tallgrass fields accumulate an enormous amount of biomass, eventually covering the ground. New shoots find it harder to take in sunlight. The insulated soil stays cold, delaying spring plant growth. Plant nutrients stay locked away in the slowly decaying leaf litter. Trees and brush threaten to take over. And grazing animals must expend more energy to find fresh forage.
Fire regenerates native grasslands by removing thatch, recycling nutrients in the dead plant matter and knocking back undesired weeds and woody plants. Cleared of overgrowth and debris, the blackened ground has more exposure to sun and rainfall to nurture regrowth of the prairie.
At Pioneer Ranch, the prairielands are typically renewed by prescribed fire every three years, Hoener said. This spring, he conducted burns on about 900 acres, each carefully controlled and timed. It’s not as simple as heading outside with a match. The burn must be properly planned and implemented in the right weather conditions and with the right safety precautions.
“You can’t burn too early, and you can’t burn too late,” Hoener explained. “We usually try to do it in early to mid-April, which helps catch emerging weeds while the native grasses are still dormant. It’s amazing how quickly the prairies come alive after that. By the first of May, they’ll be ready to graze.”
In addition to these periodic burns, grazing and haying strategies are also different for native prairie versus cool-season pastures, said Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist.
“Managing a prairie pasture is a completely different beast than managing fescue,” Jones said. “For one, the growing point on native grasses is higher on the plant. If we graze them down to 3 inches, like we typically do on cool-season pastures, then we’re taking off that growing point and weakening the stand.”
To protect their longevity, Jones recommends that native warm-season grasses be grazed to a height of 10 to 12 inches. This management practice also benefits livestock, he added.
“There’s not much nutritional value in the lower part of these grasses,” Jones said. “It starts to get kind of stemmy. From an animal performance side, there’s really no reason to graze them that short.”
The grazing season must also be carefully managed to protect prairie stands, Jones said. Native grasses need about 10 to 12 inches of growth before winter, which means animals need to be removed 30 to 45 days prior to a killing frost or freeze. Before they go dormant, the plants start storing energy in their extensive root system. Harvesting or grazing those grasses too close to winter won’t allow them to recuperate and rebuild below ground for the following growing season.
“We try hard not to over-graze,” Hoener said. “We get cattle off around the first of August so the grass can come back before winter hits. You can’t abuse the prairie, or you’ll lose it. The fescue already wants to take over, so it’s getting to be a constant battle.”
It’s definitely a balance, Jones said. Properly managed grazing and burning regimes are beneficial to prairies along with the livestock and wildlife that call them home. The right amount at the right time can increase productivity and species diversity on native grasslands. On the other hand, if not conducted properly, these practices will threaten the prairie’s persistence, nutritional quality and habitat structure.
“There aren’t many of these original prairie acres left, and management is our best tool for protecting them,” Jones said. “Farmers and ranchers who are lucky enough to have native grasslands can not only benefit from this valuable natural resource, but they also have the responsibility to make sure they’re around for generations to come.”
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