Sunflowers in the Sandhills

Over the past three summers working at Ward Laboratories Inc., I have enjoyed the opportunity to spend time in the Nebraska Sandhills.  The Sandhills are a little known hidden gem in the state of Nebraska, large expanses of rolling hills covered in prairie grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, intermingled with naturally occurring wetland areas housing birds and other wildlife.  Driving through the Sandhills taking in the many sunflowers, native grasses and cattle grazing, one can’t help but appreciate it as God’s country.  I have attended various events in the Sandhills including the Gudmundsen Laboratory Open House, Sandhills Cattlemen Association meetings, the Sandhills Ranch Expo, and other extension events.

From frequenting the rest area between Taylor and Rose, Nebraska, I have learned that the Sandhills were first settled by farmers from the eastern United States.  The sandy soils, void of nutrient dense topsoil made farming a futile effort.  With no luck in growing traditional row crops and gardens, those early settlers gave up cultivating the land and turned to grazing livestock for their survival and livelihood.

The Sandhills are a relatively untouched expanse of range land with hundreds of different species of native grasses and wild flowers. Beef cattle graze these forages acquiring key nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, and fat from the various plants available for them to choose from.  Both the people and livestock of the Sandhills are uniquely acclimated to the harsh winter conditions and hot summer temperatures.  Residing in the Sandhills is not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it to those who appreciate the natural beauty and freedom of the grassy hillsides and ever stretching skies.  The expansive prairie sits on the Ogallala Aquifer.  Windmills providing water to livestock are a common sight against the landscape.

 

The Sandhills are largest untouched prairie in the United States spanning 20,000 square miles of northern Nebraska.  The area is a great example of how grazing animals can be used to convert otherwise inedible plants into a wholesome meat product.  In the Sandhills, livestock and wildlife coexist sustainably making the Sandhills a well utilized natural resource.  The Sandhills are home to many species of birds, small and large mammals and even turtles!

 

Diversity in Grazing Animal Operations

Last week was the 18th Annual Nebraska Grazing Conference.  The theme this year was being a steward of the land and managing for diverse plant and wildlife populations through the incorporation of multiple grazing species. There were three speakers this year that spoke about how bringing sheep, goats or both species into their cattle operation made their business more profitable and more ecologically diverse.

The first speaker was a fellow University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources graduate, Sage Askin of Askin Land and Livestock LLC.  He introduced the idea that sheep and goats are browsers as opposed to grazers and therefore, consume different species of rangeland plants than beef cattle.  Mr. Askin choose to utilize sheep, having descended from species naturally adapted to cold dry climates, in his operations to match the harsh Wyoming environment. In his speech, Mr. Askin demonstrated that sheep consume more of the woody, brush plants available on the range and less of the high-quality grasses that cattle prefer.  He concluded that under most circumstances, sheep would not be competing with cattle for feedstuffs, and therefore sheep only added value to the business.  His rule of thumb was that a wyoming producer could run one sheep for every cow already on the land, however he did caution to be conservative when starting to add another species and to be aware of the grazing environment.  If grasslands are more prevalent, as opposed to the mixed range landscape where Askin Land and Livestock operates, sheep will be put in a position to compete with the cattle and that will not benefit either species. Mr. Askin also spoke about utilizing sheep as a creative solution to other agricultural production issues.  His example was a haying operation that was having a difficulty with loosing yield damaged fields due to the elk herds.  Mr. Askin moved some sheep to browse near the hay operation mitigating the elk problem, because elk do not like to graze where sheep are.

The second speaker on multi-species grazing was Brock Terrell of Terrell Farms LLC and Terrell Ranch LLC.  Mr. Terrell added sheep to his already highly diversified operation which includes cow calf, stocker cattle, backgrounding, hay, forage and row cropping.  He showed the benefits of adding sheep to his operation were monetary, ecological, and familial.  Economically, he was able to spread labor and overhead expenses across multiple enterprises on his operation, and he had two marketable products, wool and lambs.  He also reaped benefits of breaking parasite cycles through the varied species on pasture, utilizing more plant biomass to produce meat product, and increased range health through grazing pressure being put on both brush and grasses.  The children on the Terrell Ranch were also able to be involved in the sheep operation.  Mr. Terrell emphasized that the sheep operation was a low labor, low cost enterprise with high value end products and diverse marketing opportunities, providing him with more flexibility in decision making for his farm and ranch.

The third speaker was Mike Wallace who has extensive experience with a masters degree from the University of Kentucky and having managed research groups at the University of Illinois and the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center.  Today Mr. Wallace owns and operates a multi-species grazing operation called the Double M.  Mr. Wallace has reclaimed previously dryland crop ground as pastures filled with warm and cool season grasses and legumes, as well as abandoned cattle feedlots that grow mostly weedy forbes.  Mr. Wallace’s presentation showed how all three species, sheep, goats and cattle can graze and browse together on the same pasture taking advantage of a diverse variety of available forages.  Like the previous speakers, he too saw economical advantages and ecological benefits of utilizing multiple grazing species on the same operation and even in the same pastures.  Mr. Wallace takes a holistic management approach and utilizes planned rotational grazing with small paddocks and plant rest periods.  Mr. Wallace also uses his sheep and goat herds as a unique solution to occurring issues in pastures.  The example he showed was using goats to control cedar encroachment.

Overall the key point is that multiple grazing species can benefit the operation economically, ecologically and can be used to solve unique issues in a creative way.  The other speakers in the grazing conference were mostly concerned with monitoring of range land and pastures. Monitoring can come in many different forms, record keeping of grazing and resting pastures, taking photos to track changes, visual observation and notes, and taking various samples for numerical data.  Ward Laboratories, Inc. can help with forage quality samples and soil health samples, which can be used to make supplementation decisions and track range and pasture health overtime respectively.

Backyard Bird Feeders

Recently, here at Ward Laboratories, Inc., birds have been the topic of conversation.  We have had birds in nest over our doorways:

babydove
Eurasian Collared Dove

birds in nests in surrounding trees:

babyrobin
Robin

and even birds in the ceiling!

bird in ceiling
Starling in the Ceiling

Additionally, being located in Kearney, NE, we see our fair share of avid bird watchers who are drawn to the area to view over half a million Sandhill Cranes that stop here in the Platte River Valley to refuel along their spring migration.  So, with all this talk about birds, of course I thought I should share our testing of bird food.

If you supply bird food to your backyard feathered friends, you have probably noticed there is a guaranteed analysis provided on each bag.  Commercial bird feed formulations are required to set minimum crude protein, minimum crude fat and maximum crude fiber levels.  Here at Ward Laboratories, INC., we test bird feed so the manufacturer can  ensure they are meeting set standards for each seed type or mixed feed.

 

birdseed
Bird Seeds 

Feeding Wild Animals

Intermittently, I receive a phone call asking me about the interpretation of a feed analysis for a wild animal as opposed to domesticated livestock whose nutrient requirements I am more familiar with.  These phone calls usually make me do a little more research and I learn something new about animal nutrition with each inquiry.

The first time this happened, I was new to consulting here at Ward Laboratories, INC.  A producer called asking why his pheasants were suddenly losing their feathers and then dying.  The situation was dire, and his story was quite startling.  As it turned out, he was offered a very good deal on some wheat grain and had decided that would be the feed source for his pheasants.  Luckily for me the nutrient requirements for pheasants are listed in the National Research Council’s Nutrient Requirements of Poultry, so I was able to make a direct comparison between the grain he was feeding and the bird’s requirements.   It turned out that wheat grain was very high in energy, however much lower than the protein, and mineral requirements of ring neck pheasants.  The moral of that story was to have a solid understanding of the nutrient requirements of the animal you are feeding along with knowledge of the nutrients the feed is providing.

A common wild animal I get asked about is deer.  Most of these questions are about supplemental feed for deer for hunting purposes.  Deer are unique in because antler growth is very important to hunters.  For optimal antler growth deer have a very high requirement for protein.  It is recommended that a supplemental feed be greater than 16% crude protein.  Deer are also browsing animals not grazing animals meaning that they select the most nutritious portions of plants for consumption.  So, it has been shown that the total diet of a deer in the wild can be between 20-24% crude protein.  A lot of livestock producers want to utilize leftover feed supplements to feed deer on their property.  These supplements were formulated for livestock species consuming roughages not wild browse therefore, those feeds may cause health issues for deer.  Sheep and goat feed is low in copper and other important minerals and may cause a deficiency for deer.  Horse supplemental feeds are typically for active horses and therefore high in starch which may result in acidosis when consumed by a deer.

Most recently, I was asked about feeding bison.  Being unfamiliar with nutritional requirements of bison, I did a little research.  Nutrient requirements of bison have not been studied as extensively and are not as well defined as beef cattle.  Bison are more efficient utilizers of fiber than beef cattle.  They prefer to consume large amounts of grass to smaller amounts of legumes.  For the most efficient finishing production bison should be provided with a diet at about 14% crude protein and 70-90% concentrate diet so that energy does not limit growth.   Crude protein requirements for bison at other stages are not well defined but are thought to be just below those for productive beef cattle.  This is because nitrogen recycling is more prevalent in these wild ruminants than in cattle.  A management challenge bison producers face is the sensitivity of bison to cool temperatures and shorter photoperiods.  Instinctually, these animals conserve energy during the winter and consume less feed, gain less and are less productive in the winter months.  However, during summer months, bison consume more feed, gain weight at a quicker rate and are more productive.

When feeding wild animals, be sure to do some research and familiarize yourself with that animal’s nutrient requirements, as well as common feeding practices by other producers or game promoters.  Then be sure you understand the feed ingredients and how they are going to meet those nutritional requirements. Ward Laboratories Inc. can test your feeds to get an accurate report of the nutritents in the feeds you are supplementing and I am here as a consultant to help you research the nutritnet requirements of different animals.   After meticulously formulating a diet or supplement, monitor the animals you are feeding to ensure they are healthy and productive.