Grazing management key to sustaining resources on Blue Creek Ranch
Located in the Nebraska Sandhills, where balancing plant and animal life is a skill that requires the utmost of grazing and land management practices, Blue Creek Ranch is set up to master this goal.
From 1999 to 2000, Turner Enterprises pieced together several different ranching enterprises along Nebraska’s largest natural spring, Blue Creek, to accommodate a bison herd. The ranch in the southwestern edge of the Sandhills, boasts bountiful wildlife, native grasslands and is also home to the state’s second-largest natural spring. Bison were brought to the ranch from other Turner ranches until 2009 when it became a closed herd. Currently 1,350 head of breeding females, 100 head of breeding bulls, and 2,000 head of stockers graze on the ranch.
Setting the tone for sustainability in the Sandhills ecosystem, the ranch follows the company’s mission, “to manage Turner lands in an economically sustainable and ecologically sensitive manner while promoting the conservation of native species,” said Tyrell Anderson, manager, Blue Creek Ranch.
To accomplish their mission, the ranch focuses on three primary grazing and land management strategies.
First, they focus on using rest-rotation grazing on the range pastures to accomplish their end goal. “We do not go back and graze a pasture during the growing season any sooner than 13 months after a grazing event to give pastures adequate time to recover,” Anderson said. “A pasture will then have a full growing season rest after we use it during a dormant season grazing during the fall or winter.”
Rest rotation is critical in developing cover. The ranch management team aims to leave enough cover after a grazing event to protect the soil and reduce soil moisture losses and erosion. This is especially important in the case of a drought year. “We have to make sure there is enough grass left in a pasture that we can quickly go back through the pasture a second time during the dormant season if necessary when dry conditions prevail,” said Anderson, who is a graduate of the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management. His commitment to conservation of grazing lands has also prompted his involvement in the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition as a board member.
Like cattle ranching, managing the stocking rate of a bison herd is another essential strategy Blue Creek Ranch incorporates into their overall plan. “To get a more even grazing distribution over the rangeland and to have a higher herd impact, we will graze in larger herds for shorter durations of time,” Anderson said. Cross-fencing of pastures allows Anderson to move one large herd from one pasture to another, ultimately setting up a sustainable rotation, which permits longer rest periods for rangeland to recover.
“Our stocking rate is also somewhat lower than in beef cattle production since it is very difficult to de-stock bison during a drought.” Thus, Anderson said the importance of saving reserve forage and having access to some flex herds of stocker bison to drylot if necessary — maintaining the ranch’s breeding herd numbers.
Fine-tuned management has paid off. Cross-fencing opened the door to greater grazing distribution along with other practices. “We use salt/mineral and protein block placement in strategic parts of the pasture to encourage grazing in areas bison don’t normally utilize,” Anderson said.
As an example, they supplement younger bison with protein cake cubes; the weaned calf herd receives 2.5 pounds of 30 percent protein cake every day. When the supplement is fed in an area, the animals will stay together as one larger herd and graze as a mob. By supplementing feed in different parts of the pasture, this encourages the young bison to graze in areas they normally wouldn’t, including invasive plant areas, ultimately weakening those plants and fostering other plant growth for the future.
Additionally, as the ranch pursues its mission of balancing grazing for livestock production and conservation of natural resources, the ranch uses prescribed burning to achieve conservation and grazing goals. Blue Creek Ranch and its sister ranches actively engage with many different universities and conservation agencies to do research and restoration projects. Projects have included bird surveys, such as lesser prairie chickens, swans and other migratory birds, as well as swift fox and reptile research projects, wetland and creek restoration efforts. ❖
Author’s note: Bison born and raised on Blue Creek Ranch graze on grass from 18 to 30 months of age and then are finish fed in an on-site feedlot. Finished animals are sold to Rocky Mountain Natural Meats in Denver and marketed as Great Range Bison. Learn more about other grazing managers across Nebraska at http://www.nebraskagrazinglands.org.
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