A majestic resource – preserving the Nebraska Sandhills
Peaceful, pristine and stunning are just a few of the words that travelers of Nebraska Highway 2 have used to describe the Sandhills. Often appearing on lists of the most scenic drives in the country, Highway 2 cuts through the middle of the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere plus one of the largest grass-stabilized dune regions in the world. What a passerby may not realize is that the Sandhills region provides far more than an outstanding view.
The dunes of the Sandhills, some as high as 400 feet and as long as 20 miles, were formed from blowing sand after the last Ice Age. Today, the dunes are held in place and stabilized by vegetation that consists mainly of grasses. There are over 700 species of plants estimated to be growing without cultivation in the region. The rich biodiversity makes the Sandhills a prime region for livestock grazing. Over 535,000 head of beef cows call the Nebraska Sandhills home.
Given the high importance of the beef industry to the resilience of Nebraska, researchers at the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have long worked with ranchers in the Nebraska Sandhills to ensure the sustainability of the region. According to Walter Schacht, Sunkist Fiesta Bowl Professor of Agronomy, a significant amount of research occurs in the Sandhills because it's largely an intact grassland system and the region is “a long-term part of who we are and what we do.”
Much of IANR’s research in the Sandhills focuses on testing grazing management strategies that don’t compromise the ecological processes and resilience of the region. For instance, several projects have focused on how various combinations of frequency and intensity of grazing affect plant community production and composition, efficiency of plant harvest by the grazing animals, soil properties and wildlife habitat. By altering grazing period lengths, recovery period lengths and stocking intensity, researchers like Schacht have been able to identify how grazing strategies can be used to optimize livestock production, create plant cover for a diversity of wildlife and improve belowground processes.
Jerry Volesky is a professor and extension range and forage specialist at the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte. He is involved in a long-term grazing research project at Barta Brothers Ranch examining grazing rotation. Volesky and his colleagues take detailed measurements to evaluate plant community responses, soil characteristics, pasture productivity and more.
“One of the things we’ve found over the years is that the timing of grazing is very important, so we suggest a rotational grazing system, rotating through five or six pastures during the season and adjusting which pasture the herd starts in,” Volesky said.
Other research has looked at precipitation in the region. While the Sandhills is generally viewed as a dry grassland, it sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer – one of the world’s largest aquifers. The makeup of the dunes quickly absorbs precipitation, which means the area is very important for aquifer recharge. Naturally, the more precipitation any given spot receives, the more plant biomass it will produce, but it’s not as easy to estimate with the varying topography of the Sandhills, where slopes can be as steep as 25%. Mitch Stephenson, range and forage management specialist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff, led a study examining Sandhills plant production from 2001 to 2017. He found that cool-season grasses in swales, or low spots, responded much more favorably to increased precipitation, which could help ranchers estimate grass production.
Findings from these projects are often shared with area ranchers who will adjust their grazing strategies to efficiently use the rangeland resource and maintain rangeland health. These actions also support a rich habitat for wildlife such as deer, coyotes, meadowlarks, cranes and ornate box turtles. And every spring, one of the few stable populations of greater prairie-chicken can be found on their mating grounds (leks) throughout much of the Sandhills. Area ranchers can take credit for managing the resources of the Sandhills for the betterment of their operations and the ecosystem in which they reside.”
“Sandhills ranchers have had a long history of being really good managers. They’ve done a great job over the last century managing that resource,” said Volesky. “Their stewardship is really quite amazing.”