Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Drought Management Ranch Tour a Success

By Mary Howell

On May 11, 63 people journeyed west of Medicine Lodge in Barber County to the Alexander Ranch. The weather was a warm spring day accompanied with a steady wind.  The red soil peeking out of the bright green grass provided the beautiful landscape that felt like scenery from a western movie. 

Ted Alexander explains a creek restoration project.
Due to the long very cool winter and spring, the cool and warm season grasses are late growing this year.  Tour participants were treated to indoor presentations and two trips out to pasture and cattle. Discussion focused on range management, fencing, water development, tree clearing, stocking rates, livestock management and wildlife.   Speakers for the day were ranchers Ted Alexander and son Brian, NRCS Specialists David Kraft, Dwayne Rice and Dusty Tacha.

Ted's grandfather H.W Skinner settled the ranch about 100 years ago.  The ranch always took in cattle, never owning their own.  The ranch was put in a trust in 1968 and Ted took over the ranch in 1984. Ted describes his ranch back then as an overgrazed, under-utilized, cedar forest ranch.   He bought a tree saw and spent several years cutting a lot of trees. He then built some ponds and installed cross fencing.

His goal was to implement managed rotational grazing, moving away from the "Columbus Style" grazing system where one turns the cattle out in the spring in one big pasture and at the end of the grazing season goes back and discovers them.

In 1988 Ted participated in the David Pratt Ranching for Profit seminars.   As a result of the class Ted developed the Drought Plan that he makes ranch decisions by as well as a Transition Plan for Brian returning to the ranch. In 1997 Dwayne Rice visited Ted's ranch and encouraged him to add more paddocks, graze faster and rest the grass for longer periods of time. 

Brian Alexander discusses rotational grazing.
For 12 years Ted managed the ranch with only the help of his dog. In 2006 his son Brian returned to the ranch to transition to be the next generation of the family operation.   They still take in cattle during the summer.

At the same time Brian returned to join the operation lightning struck and a major wildfire took a huge strip of the central portion of the ranch rotation out of production. Two years of recovery followed the fire. The ranch is now dealing with the third year of drought. They strive for their grazing to simulate the Native American/Bison Grazing System.  Big herds of bison moved thru the country then moved on allowing the grass to rest and re-grow for long periods of time.

The animals moved through the country at different times of the year so, therefore, their plan makes sure that the rotation in the various grazing cells is also during different seasons. This keeps the system in a state of change allowing all of the native plant species to go through full life cycles and encourage them to thrive.  Now utilizing the drought plan the grass gets grazed fast with a bigger group of animals taking off 40 percent of the forage.  The animals are then moved and the grass in that cell will be rested and not be grazed again for at least a year. Ted takes in cattle on the dollars per head per day basis, not rate of gain. His contract allows for the cattle to be modified according to drought and grazing conditions.  

David Kraft and Dwayne Rice presented focusing on management for the ongoing drought that we are experiencing. Ranchers need to set benchmarks to know where to begin to manage for the long term. They encouraged ranchers to go places where they can learn ways to enhance their ranch management. Ranchers should not feel that because they have been in the business for years they should know what they need to know. Networking with other ranchers and learning from each other provides very valuable information.

With this drought people are realizing that they have to reduce stock numbers. There are ways to improve even in a drought to move past the survival mode. How the plant is treated now effects future production.  Normal and average tend to drive how decisions are made.   Plants do not have a connection to the calendar. They grow in response to the environmental conditions at the time. Ranchers need to monitor the current conditions and make decisions based on the state of the plant's health.

Alexander has installed an extensive livestock-water system that uses solar energy since electric power lines do not cross the ranch. The solar-powered pumps carry water from a pond to a storage tank. The water then flows to tanks as needed. These two tanks serve four grazing cells.
As ranch managers we have to understand the cycles and we have to be in tune with what is happening on the ground to manage for long term survival and success. A rancher can't make decisions on what he doesn't know. We have to evaluate what we have and where the ranch is, to effectively plan for now and the future. We can't graze what we can't grow!

Early on in his ranching career Ted was inspired by a quote from Leopold that said, "We will never be conservationists as long as we approach agriculture as production oriented." We must address proper conservation focusing on water quality, water quantity, and air quality.

Ted's closing remarks at the tour were, "As managers, we need to look at our environment and determine what we can do to keep this range as healthy as we can to sustain wildlife and graze animals on it.   This model is not production agriculture."

Education partners for the tour were NRCS, KGLC, Kansas SARE, KSCAAC, Kansas Farmers Union, Comanche Prairie Pool and Kansas Graziers Association.

Barber County vista

Friday, May 10, 2013

May 11: Ted Alexander Ranch Tour

Kansas Ranchers are invited to the Ted Alexander Ranch for a tour sponsored by Kansas Graziers Association focusing on the current drought and how to best manage ranch resources to survive the upcoming grazing season.  

Registration for the tour will start at 9:30 a.m. nineteen miles west of Medicine Lodge on the north side of Highway 160.  The tour starts at 10 a.m.    

Morning presentations will focus on Managing Drought on the Ranch by Ted Alexander, David Kraft and Dwayne Rice; lunch catered by Buster's followed by Afternoon Ranch Tour. A Wrap-Up Social at Buster's will follow the tour. 

Registration is $10 to cover lunch and handouts.
RSVPs are requested for lunch count.
Registration form - www.kansasfarmersunion.org
Questions contact Mary Howell - kfu.mary@gmail.com or call 785-562-8726.
For drought information - www.kglc.org 

Sponsors for this event are Kansas Graziers Association, Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition, Kansas Farmers Union, Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops and Kansas Rural Center.

Ted is an award winning rancher.   He was the 2007 National Cattlemen's Beef Association Region VII Environmental Stewardship Award Winner.
Watch the video:


About Ted Alexander
Ancora Imparo -(I am still learning) is the philosophy by which rancher Ted Alexander lives and works. He reminds his fellow ranchers and others that he doesn't have it all figured out, but he has the passion to push onward to improve.

Ted's ranch covers 7,000 acres in the heart of the Red Hills in Barber County; located in the Comanche Pool area just a few miles north of the Oklahoma - Kansas line.

His ranch has flourished as a custom-grazing operation for nearly 30 years. However, this was not so when he began managing and operating the ranch in 1984. Alexander, who affectionately refers to his occupation as 'a used sunlight salesman,' will tell you that the ranch was an "over-grazed, under-utilized, under-watered, cedar forest ranch."

Often stocking between 500-700 cow/calf pairs or 2,500 yearlings, the operation runs on a rotational grazing method. Stocker cattle are custom grazed during the spring and early summer. When beneficial to the management of the stockpiled forage, Alexander custom grazes cattle during the winter.

Ted cleared all the hilltops of cedar trees resulting in water returning to the creeks. "The forage resource is in excellent shape on those hilltops, and now I'm concentrating on the riparian areas to improve the habitat for multiple species," Ted said. Alexander installed practices recommended by NRCS, such as cross fencing, ponds, and other water developments. Environmental enhancements to the land include removal of invasive Eastern Red Cedar trees, development of livestock water sources, improvement of forage productivity, and increasing the native plant and wildlife diversity. All of these enhancements and more were completed while accomplishing one overarching goal--maintaining a profitable and viable ranch business.

The ranch is divided into three grazing cells, each consisting of smaller paddocks of acreage. The paddock system utilized by the Alexander Ranch has allowed them to continually improve the pastures and to operate with the environment in mind.  Cattle thrive because of the range improvements and stewardship practices. In addition, the ranch has enhanced and developed several innovative water systems.

In recent years out of necessity and for energy efficiency, Alexander has installed an extensive livestock-water system that uses solar energy since electric power lines do not cross the ranch. The solar-powered pumps carry water from a pond to a storage tank. The water then flows to tanks as needed. Solar energy also powers energizers for electric fences that set the grazing cell boundaries needed for his Management Intensive Grazing System.

The culmination of the Alexander Ranch's grazing lands management practices has contributed to an increase in stocking rates of over 100 percent from the 1984 level, maintained individual animal performance, and increased the pounds of beef produced per acre while upholding the management goals to improve water quality, water quantity, soil health and native rangelands.

"Drought-proof your ranch as thoroughly as possible before it quits raining," are the first words in Alexander's drought plan that he follows faithfully." Ted also suggests to, "Hope for the best, and plan for the worst!"

Although Alexander is recognized for his stewardship and environmental practices on the Ranch, he is certainly appreciated for his eagerness to share his knowledge and experience with others. With an art educator's background and a love for the ranching business, Ted Alexander never misses an opportunity to lead, teach, and mentor; especially young rancher.             

Note: Info for this article was found on NRCS's website, "Success Stories - Ranching with a Passion" written by Mary Shaffer.