From the other side of the fence

Cow-Calf Commentary

KIMBALL, Neb. – Niece Faith and her college friend Gabby visited the ranch over the weekend.

Faith is my brother Andy’s daughter. Andy is a firefighter in Omaha. Faith’s mom Tami is a teacher, and her sister Grace recently graduated from high school. Gabby is also from Omaha and she and Faith have been friends since Kindergarten.

Faith and Gabby are college students. Faith studies microbiology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and Gabby is a horticulture major at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

When they arrived late in the afternoon on a blazing hot Saturday, the girls were already primed for a tour of the ranch. Faith wanted to show off the place, and Gabby – a lifelong city girl with no ag background – was excited to see a real ranch.

When I asked Gabby what caused her to choose the study of horticulture, she replied, “I just always liked growing things and I’ve always been kind of a plant nerd.”

As we drove out through the lush and tall summer grass I gave my usual grass farmer spiel. “We like to say were cattlemen, but in reality, we’re grass farmers. Our primary crop is the grass, and we use the cattle to harvest it. The cows harvest the grass and turn it into calves, which we take to the sale barn and exchange for money. But everything we do hinges on the health and vigor of this shortgrass prairie ecosystem. If we don’t take care of that we have no grass, no cattle, and no way to make a living.”

As we drove along I pointed out the difference between native prairie and reintroduced grassland. Nearly all of the home place is former wheat ground and had been in a wheat-fallow rotation from about 1885 to 1985. I pointed out the neighbor’s amber waves of grain and noted that for a century, our home place looked just the same in July. It’s a striking difference.

We stopped and got out to look at the cows and calves. Gabby was excited to see them up close and quickly began taking pictures with her phone. She was particularly enchanted by the calves and seemed delighted to watch them nursing and at play. It was a good chance to describe the circularity of the prairie life cycle.

“The sun provides every speck of energy the plants and animals use to live. The grasses and other plants use the sun’s energy to power photosynthesis. They take in water and micronutrients from the soil, and carbon dioxide from the air, and photons from the sun power their growth at the cellular level. The cells make starch and cellulose – which are both carbohydrates – from air and water by combining carbon from carbon dioxide and hydrogen from water, or H2O. The cattle eat the grass, which is filled with nutrients and energy, and through their cellular metabolism turn the carbohydrates into flesh and babies. The energy that drives that process started out as the sunlight which drives the plants metabolism, so as it turns out, the cows are solar powered, too. And so are we, because we consume plants and meat. And while the cattle eat the grass, they also return micronutrients and fertilizer to the prairie through their manure and urine.”

“The carbon cycle,” said the girls simultaneously. Who says you can’t learn anything at college?

I pointed out different cool and warm season grasses and explained how each has a rapid growth period at different times of the year – cool season in the spring and fall and warm season in the summer. The prairie evolved this way to provide grazing throughout the growing season, and prairie plants need to be grazed as much as herbivores need to graze. It’s an elegant system.

We spent time looking at wildlife too. As the day cooled into evening, swallows and phoebes swarmed through the air, gobbling up flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Sparrows, finches and meadowlarks dined on seeds, while killdeer and other shore birds made a meal of crustaceans and water bugs in and around playas and stock tanks. Rabbits and ground squirrels were everywhere, while predator hawks soared overhead. A coyote trotted along near a tree line, and a young female Pronghorn kept an eye on us while she grazed. Judging by the state of her udder, she had one or two babies laid up somewhere nearby in the lush grass.

We scrambled through a canyon and I pointed out the shrubs and forbs that prefer to live in the rockiest of soil. Chokecherries, in particular, often seem to grow directly out of fractured slabs of siltstone. In this year of abundant moisture, chokecherry branches are already heavy with masses of still-green berries. Most of those will feed wildlife, but some will become tasty jelly and jam.

We took a close look at a windmill, and I pointed out that while we’re in a semi-arid climatic zone with an average of less than 20 inches of rain each year, we’re also sitting atop an abundant aquifer with more than enough water for our needs just below our feet. 

“The windmills may seem old fashioned and even primitive,” I said. “But they only need the wind to make water for us, and it’s not uncommon for the electricity to go out or the submersible pumps to fail.”

Somehow, I’d spoken prophetically. The next morning, the pump at the home place tripped off and we had a house full of anxious visitors (another brother and his family were visiting as well) waiting for me to “make the water turn on” once again.

All in all, it was a nice tour and it was nice to visit with Faith and Gabby about what we do and how things work. I was impressed by the girl’s curiosity and enthusiasm. They didn’t behave anything like the college students we most frequently hear about.

With so few farmers and ranchers in America – only about 1 percent of the population – I always enjoy the opportunity to share the ranch with visitors. A lot of people never get the chance to see what really happens out in the country where the food is grown.

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