Sandhills ranch family finds prescribed burns add value to grazing land
When the Switzer Ranch started planning prescribed burns 12 years ago to improve their pasture land, some of their neighbors feared the burns would destroy the ecology in the Nebraska Sandhills.
Sarah Sortum, who manages the family ranch along with her brother and their parents, told participants at the Nebraska Grazing Conference that when their neighbors found out they intended to start prescribed burns to control an out of control red cedar population, the neighbors told them not to burn the trees; they would rent the land for grazing. “That was standing money, but we view the trees as standing debt. It is just a different way of looking at it,” Sortum said.
Although they were skeptical at first, Sortum said more and more of their neighbors have seen, first-hand, how much prescribed burns have improved the ecology of the land in the area. More burning is being done all the time, mostly to control the cedar tree population. “It has become part of our culture. We utilize the volunteer fire department and neighbors to help us. We are now doing burns on some of those same neighbors who wanted to rent our grazing lands 12 years ago,” Sortum said.
Cedar tree infestations have become the biggest threat to grasslands in their area. “We are losing a lot of grazing land to cedar trees, and nothing grows under them. Where we are located, my dad and his neighbors never thought these trees would be a problem, and now they have became a problem on so many different levels. You have to stay on top of it,” she said.
Before they decided to try prescribed burns, the family attempted to control the tree population by mechanical cutting. “We used to think we couldn’t burn the Sandhills. It would never work. We thought we would have to rest the pasture the year before and the year after, and we didn’t think we could afford to give up that much grass. Then we got desperate because we were trying to cut the trees, but we couldn’t keep up and it was costing thousands and thousands of dollars. We were just getting further behind,” she said.
With Sortum and her brother on board to try prescribed burns, they had to convince their father, who is more of a moderate grazer. “Our first burn turned out to be a total disaster. Our family has a tendency to just do it, and not research and learn about it first. We ended up burning a lot more than we intended, but we didn’t get onto the neighbors. When summer came, so did the custom grazers. We didn’t have the option to let them graze someplace else, so they grazed some of what we had burned. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Afterward, we went out and looked at those pastures and we really liked the way they looked,” she said. Prescribed burns are now a regular practice each spring, and planning starts two years in advance.
After the first burn, they started doing some research on grazing after burning. “In our area, we have a lot of Kentucky Bluegrass in some of the valleys. I wanted to see more plant diversity, and I didn’t want something to come in and force everything else out,” Sortum said.
After the burn, the cattle came through and grazed an area that was dominated by Kentucky Bluegrass. “Later in the season, after the cattle had grazed, I was surprised at the plant diversity that had never been allowed to express itself. Since then, when the cool season grasses are growing, we let the cattle graze it down, then we take them out so everything else can compete. We have seen very good results with what we are targeting,” Sortum said.
When the family members look at the land, they see it different ways. However, their common goal is to use grazing as a tool. Sortum manages a nature-based tourism business, Calamus Outfitters, on the same acres as the cattle graze. “My top priority when I go out and look at the pasture is habitat. I try to learn what grassland birds need, and that is what I manage for. When I first started getting into birds, I felt a little guilty because we are a ranch family and it has always been about the cattle. What I found is everyone has a personal bias, and looking at a pasture for diversity is my personal bias,” she said. “I look at it for the birds, insects, bugs and pollinators. I want lots of diverse plant composition and structure. I even want to see some open sands habitat because that makes it more diverse. My dad looks at the pasture and thinks of the cattle first. We come at things from slightly different perspectives, but we come together and share our perspectives so we can do what’s best for the operation,” Sortum said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.