People learned about mob grazing, bobcats caught on camera, fires set on purpose, and a lot more Thursday at Broken Box Ranch near Moorefield.
While visitors gazed over the pastures, Russ Sundstrom, owner and operator of the ranch, talked about strategies he has implemented.
Mob grazing means putting a lot of cattle in a small pasture for a limited time. As the cattle eat, they deposit their waste more evenly than when they are allowed more room to graze. That ends up enriching the soil. Other strategies include letting pastures rest so plants can regrow and produce seeds, overseeding legumes and other cover crops, and adjusting sources of water to control where cattle graze.
The Sundstroms started keeping detailed records years ago. He said that is critical to improvement: “How do you know how far you’ve gone if you don’t know where you started?”
They harvest the top growth from small areas to measure production and analyze pastures to see if there is a good mix of tall and short grasses, shrubs and other plants.
They also keep track of the pounds of beef produced per section of ground. But maximizing beef production is not the end goal. “My objective is optimization” of the herd, the pastures and the environment, Sundstrom said, keeping long-term viability in mind.
The idea of optimization extends to the cow re-breeding rate, he said, but he looks at that differently than many ranchers do. He expects to have some open (unbred) cows at the end of breeding season.
Generally, if fewer than 10 percent of the cows are open, things are too easy for them, he said. “The cows aren’t working for you. You’re working for the cows.”
Sundstrom culls open cows and raises his own replacement heifers.
“It’s probably cheaper to buy replacement heifers,” he said, but it’s not the best for the way he operates his business.
When pastures are at their best, wild animals benefit too. Andy Moore, wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Pheasants Forever, told the visitors to the ranch that some wildlife prefer short grasses, while others, including game and non-game birds and small animals, depend on taller cover. Even burying beetles, native to Nebraska, are critical to the environment, recycling carcasses of small animals and returning nutrients to the soil.
Sundstrom said wildlife at the ranch brings him a lot of satisfaction. Trail cameras placed in many locations have captured images of elk, bobcats, coyotes, whitetail and mule deer, and other animals. The Sundstroms share part of their ranch with the public through enrollment in the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Open Fields and Waters Program.
Pasture improvement takes time, but “in three to five years you can make a difference,” Sundstrom said.
Controlling invasive plants, such as eastern redcedar, is an important part of the process, While Sundstrom talked, his audience glanced at bare cedar trees in shallow ravines in the distance, areas where planned, “prescribed” burns had been conducted in recent years. The burns are coordinated with the Loess Canyons Prescribed Burn Association, of which Sundstrom is a member.
You can cut out the small trees, Sundstrom said, but periodic burning can be the most practical way to control the larger ones. Burning also destroys seeds of inferior forage, while desirable grasses sprout again from roots deep in the soil.
Sundstrom said his mindset has changed over the years. He has adopted the motto “manage for what you want, not what you don’t want.” He said he tries to work in cooperation with nature, spending less time cutting and spraying weeds and more time on strategies to optimize pasture conditions.
Resilience, or the ability to respond to hardships, is important, he said, but his real goal is “antifragility,” the ability to thrive in the face of challenges such as dry spells.
He said he hopes his pastures and cattle continue to do well when the next drought hits the area. He hopes he won’t have to adjust his stocking rate much and may even be in a position to lease out pastures to others who need it.
That test remains to be seen.
“It’s easy to look good when it’s raining,” Sundstrom said.