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

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