In the region of south central Kansas where the dirt turns red from the oxidation of the iron in the soil, known as the Gypsum Hills, short and tall native prairie grasses come together and thrive during the warm season. However, in many of the region's pastures, native grasses like Indiangrass, gamagrass and buffalo grass, are literally overshadowed by invasive eastern red cedars and Osage orange trees, causing problems during drought years.
Some ranches in the region, including Ted Turner's famous Z-Bar Ranch, are going through projects to remove these invasive species and restore the native prairie. One of the biggest success stories is another Ted – Ted Alexander, whose 7,000-acre Alexander Ranch, just west of Medicine Lodge, has seen a huge improvement since he gained control in 1984. "When I started this project in 1984, about 60% of the ranch had about 80% canopy on it," the college instructor turned custom grazer says. "I had to find out what I had – I knew I had a cedar forest that was under-grazed, under-utilized, and under-watered."
These trees are very detrimental to the native grass growth, reducing the amount of forage available for cattle. "A tree that's 5 to 6 inches in diameter could take 20 to 30 gallons of water a day," Alexander explains. "They take up a lot of water. Bovines don't graze them. The more cedars you have, the less grass you have and the less bovines you can graze."
So, Alexander made it his mission to restore the native prairie and remove these invasive trees through a series of projects. With grants like the Private Stewardship Grant through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NRCS's EQIP program, Alexander was able to clear out trees in places where they had taken over. Now, hills and streams that were once overgrown with eastern red cedars are clear. "When I moved here, one of the streams was an intermittent stream, and in 1988, it didn't run at all," he says. "We got a grant to remove all of the trees we could off of the riparian area and have stream flow monitors installed along the stream. Today, it's still running water."
Restoring the native prairie
While tree removal has also improved grass growth, Alexander's use of rotational grazing has also allowed him to increase grazing capacity significantly. A custom grazer and follower of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold's principles, Alexander describes himself as a used sunlight salesman, as opposed to a rancher. Forages consume sunlight, and cattle consume forage. "The process is more important than content," he says. "The process here is converting sunlight into protein."
In 2010, before the drought hit in his region, he was custom grazing around 2,300 yearlings and 230 cow-calf pairs on his ranch and some of his neighbor's acres. "18 years of intense grazing management is why we're able to manage through this drought and not have a really high amount of stress on our range," he says. "Since I started this, before the drought hit in 2010, I increased the stocking rate by 100%."
This is thanks to rotating and giving the forage some rest. Alexander has worked closely with Stan Parsons and Dave Pratt from Ranching for Profit, consultants who help ranchers grow more grass and stock more cattle. With their help, Alexander formed a drought plan with "trigger dates" – critical dates to use as a reference for how much growth the grass should have depending on rainfall, which also helps determine stocking rates.
Alexander has seen a significant decrease of rainfall and grass growth since the drought hit in 2010. "In March, I had a rain of two inches," he says. "It had been 869 days since I had a two-inch rainfall." Before 2010, there was about 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of forage per acre of native prairie. "For the last three years, we're producing half, about 1,500 to 1,700 pounds per acre." The amount of residual herbage is important for the next year, although Alexander's renters take in some cattle for winter grazing. "I like to end up with somewhere around 800 pounds of forage an acre going into the winter," he says. "500 would be the lowest I could possibly go."
Using rainfall data to plan ahead
In his area, 50% of the forage is typically produced by June 15. "Historically, this area is supposed to get 18 to 22 inches of rain a year," Alexander says. "Based on the last three years, that's where we're moving back toward." So, decisions would be made based on this rainfall data over several years. "As our rainfall patterns move, we're going to have to move our stocking rate down," he explains. "Over three years, if you're only getting half of your rainfall during the growing season, that's what your stocking rate is going to have to be. If you're only getting half your rain, you're still only getting half your grass."
Resting periods, grazing periods and stocking rates are not based on time, but rainfall and how much the grass has actually recovered, although some forage has had as much as 400 days of rest. "You can rest, but has the forage recovered?" Alexander asks. Resting periods vary. "On some pastures, I've pushed it out to 75 days of rest," he says. "60 days is a good number to shoot for, but that's for me and my personal experience." Grazing periods also vary. "We've got some paddocks that are 40 acres that they graze in a day, and some that are 200 acres that they graze in four to five days."
It is possible to give the grass too much rest. Alexander found this out using a 150 square foot exclusion cage with four years of rest to see how long too much rest is, although this varies. "The preferred species plants were definitely reduced in their vigor because of so much ground cover from the cheat," he says. "The forbs, the sage wort and the ragweed were prolific."
However, stocking rates shouldn't be adjusted mid-summer. "Typically, people don't react to something unless it's a crisis," he says. "Developing the plan and sticking to it before we get into a crisis is important." With drought, Alexander has adjusted his stocking rates accordingly, starting each of the past couple years de-stocked by 48%, based on data from previous years. If rainfall improves, he would gradually increase rates by 15 to 20% per year. "That's why it's important to keep track of the rainfall, so you know how much you're going to get during the growing season," he says. "If you want to manage, you've got to measure."
Alexander has also helped other ranchers and farmers restore native prairie through the Comanche Pool Prairie Resources Foundation. The organization has helped restore over 5,000 acres of marginal farmland to native rangeland and remove eastern red cedars through a $2.5 million National Fish and Wildlife Federation grant. "From about the Pratt-Barber County line to the Oklahoma state line, we've got over 100,000 acres that are now well-managed," he says. "Did I cause it? No, but I think I've had some influence."
Another key part of a drought plan: water availability
Another important part of a drought management plan is having water available for cattle. In Alexander's region in western Barber County, where annual rainfall is averaging 18 to 22 inches, a reliable source of surface water is not always easy to find. "I have built nine ponds. If I had to build it over, I would just build two ponds," he says. "Instead of the other seven ponds I built, I could have a pipeline system over the whole ranch."
His water system, which he started constructing in 1988, has over five miles of underground pipeline. His ranch has five 1,500-gallon stock tanks and sixteen 2,000-gallon stock tanks, in addition to an 8,000-gallon and 20,000-gallon storage tank. "Not having to rely on ponds and not having to worry about problems with algae and drought, it's been really nice to have all these pipes and tanks."
Having a central watering system with tanks is also beneficial to reduce erosion. Because water is available at the tank, cattle stay away from riparian areas. "The cows are always going up the hill to drink water," he explains. "If they're walking downhill to the bottom, the pond is going to fill in and silt up."
This system includes 3.5 miles of pipeline on solar panels and Grundfos pumps. Some of the pumps can pump up to eight to ten gallons a minute in bright sunlight, while others can pump two gallons a minute. "It's really nice to go and turn it on and not have to worry about an electric bill." Because they are a half mile or more from the electric grid, they are cheaper than electricity. "When I put my first solar system in in 2002, they wanted $18,000 to run electricity to it," Alexander says. "I did it for about half that cost. Now, it would be about a third of that cost."