Thursday, October 15, 2009
Cattle Ranchers are True Environmentalists
Kansas cattle ranchers know what they are doing! They are the environmentalists that protect the tallgrass prairie in which the Kansas Flint Hills is located. I am proud to be a cattle rancher in Kansas and proud to be an environmentalist!
Even though we don't plant this grass or fertilize it, we do manage it in a very precise way. This is the fall of the year, and in the Flint Hills, the Indian Grass and Big Bluestem are the dominant features in a viewscape of the prairie. They shoot out their seedheads and their leaves turn a beautiful orange/red to color the pastures with an amazing palatte. This time of the year, the cattle are often still eating the dead, dry grass but the nutritional value is dropping daily. We often supplement their diet with things that help them digest the grass to get the maximum benefit from the remaining nutrition. Ranchers are making plans to gather the mama cows and haul them by semi-truck or livestock trailers pulled by pick up trucks, or they may organize a cattle drive along gravel roads, to move their cows to winter pastures or locations closer to home so they can be fed hay through the winter.
Throughout the winter, the tallgrass prairie benefits from the snows and ice by catching it in the tall, dead grass and allowing the moisture to soak through the dense network of stems and roots to penetrate deep into the rocky soil. In the spring, as the grass begins to grow and the prairie begins to come alive, the ranchers of the Flint Hills prepare for the most important part of pasture management: burning the prairie! History shows us that burning the grass is an efficient way to remove dead grass and debris to allow for new shoots to grow rapidly, return the carbon of the dead grass to the soil, and kill off invasive scrub plants that would take over the pasture if allowed. The first prairie fires were probably started by lightning, and the Indians soon learned that the buffalo preferred the hills where the grass had been burned and that they quickly grew fat on the new grass. This was the beginning of grazing management!
When the bluestem grass is about an inch tall, or up to a ranchers first knuckle when a finger is pushed down to the soil, it is time to burn! Many factors must come together to have a good burn. The humidity level must be not too wet nor too dry, the wind direction and speed just right for the location to be burned and a good crew of neighboring ranchers must be available. If the burn is timed correctly, within a matter of days new grass shoots can be seen across the black burned hills. That grass will grow very quickly and cover the hills with a carpet of green, in preparation for the delivery of thousands of cattle to this area.
May 1 is the beginning of pasture season and the grass is ready to support the hungry cows and stocker calves that populate the pastures in this area. Throughout the summer, ranchers are busy following up on the rest of their grazing management plan, to ensure the cattle graze uniformly all over the pasture and don't waste a single blade of grass. The grass grows quickly and usually gets ahead of the cattle as they are unable to eat fast enough to keep it short! Near the middle of the summer, as the prairie grass nears its peak in nutrition, ranchers cut grass in meadows that are reserved for their hay crops. This hay will be stored to be fed to the cows all winter.
Remember, I mentioned that we do manage the grass without fertilizing it....I did say that we don't use mechanical means. We do not purchase chemical fertilizer and use tractors or planes to spray native grass pastures. We use good old Mother Nature to do the fertilizing: manure and ashes. In addition by walking on the grass, the cow's cloven hoof aerates the soil as she walks, and she spreads her own fertilizer across the pasture as she grazes, depositing her manure as she goes.
Without the management of the rancher/environmentalists, the tallgrass prairie would be a cedar and scrub forest that would not be useable for any agricultural purpose. Instead, through natural management practices that include fire and grazing distribution, we help to make one of the oldest native grasslands even stronger and healthier. Hats off to the Kansas rancher--the original environmentalist of the tallgrass prairie. Also, hats off to Blog Action Day 2009 for faciliting a discussion of Climate Change! Get involved and show how YOU are already fighting for our environment!