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Grazing the Flint Hills Tall grass prairie survival depends on ranchers, rain and fire

Clifford Mitchell Published on 24 February 2013
Progressive Cattle Country

The tall grass prairie of the Flint Hills region in Kansas is one of the last untouched grazing areas of what was once over 140 million acres that extended from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Big and little bluestem, switchgrass and Indian grass are the primary forages across this native range paradise.

The Flint Hills extend from Marshall County in the north to Cowley County in the south and are known as “The Osage” when they cross the Oklahoma border.

According to history, clayey soil and cherty (flint) gravel saved this pristine region from the plow.

Historical places fill the region, with each telling its own story like the Hollenberg Station in Hanover that was a way station on the Oregon-California trail and later a Pony Express office.

Unique is probably the best way to describe the area and the folks who call it home.

The native grass rangeland has long been known for yearling production because of the cheap gains achieved during the traditional 100-day to 120-day grazing season.

Cow-calf operations also occupy this region with many registered and commercial breeders in the area. Dry weather and lack of moisture have plagued a lot of areas, including the Flint Hills the last couple of years, hurting the ability for some to turn a profit or even make plans for the summer months.

Flint Hills

Waiting for the rain
“It’s my job to take care of the land and find cattle to put on the land.

“Without water, it’s hard to plan until Mother Nature sends us a rain,” says Flint Hills veteran Wayne Bailey of Cottonwood Falls.

Bailey operates a custom grazing business and has registered and commercial Hereford cattle.

“One of the challenges we’re facing in the Flint Hills is lack of pond water due to the dry weather.

“There’s not much underground well water either. Some folks are hauling water, but that gets awfully expensive,” says Frank Hinkson.

The 30-year Flint Hills rancher says this is the driest he can remember. “If we don’t receive significant moisture between now and June 1, there will be a lot of cattle that don’t get turned out or are only grazed for a short time.”

The lack of water has led to pond cleaning in several areas to provide a little more insurance for the next dry period after the ponds refill with some good moisture.

Mill Brae Ranch

“Grass isn’t much good without water. You have to be optimistic that will change, but pond cleaning doesn’t automatically put water in them,” says Mark Nikkel of Mill Brae Ranch in Maple Hill.

Nikkel has operated Mill Brae Ranch for 27 years and through synchronization the purebred and commercial Angus herds have been adapted to Flint Hills’ resources.

“We’re really low on pond water and short on hay supplies this year.

“We were looking tough last year and we got a good rain while the ground was frozen that filled the ponds and saved our grazing season,” Bailey says.

“We’re cleaning ponds to make them a little deeper. When you think about it, it doesn’t take those ponds very long to fill with sediment over the years.”

According to Hinkson, low pond water has led to another problem on their operation. “We have also had a blue-green algae problem in our ponds.

“It’s toxic to cattle and when that shows up we have to take cattle out of that pasture,” he stated.

Range management
The four veteran Flint Hills ranchers quickly changed their tone when it came to talking about the native range country that has supported these operations.

One drive down Interstate 70 or up the Kansas Turnpike during early summer will confirm the tall grass prairie is ideally suited for yearling cattle making a stop along the way before ending up in Western Kansas feedyards.

“When it rains, we have some of the best grass and good water. Some of the yearlings that trace to our genetics are equipped to gain almost three pounds per day.

Rinke Cattle Company

“It’s a complete grass and the fact we have the ability to run different classes of cattle helps to diversify,” says Bruce Rinkes of Rinkes Cattle Company in Holton, Kansas.

Rinkes, an Ohio native, moved to the Flint Hills around 30 years ago and has brought his two sons back to help with the operation.

“When we have water, this is the best grass in the world. We can add pounds cheaper and more efficiently here than anywhere,” Bailey says. “We have to make a profit anytime we can and we can add a lot of value to those yearlings in the summer.”

“Traditionally, year in and year out, we’ll have a 100-day to 120-day grazing season and a lot of those cattle are double-stocked,” Hinkson says. “Every year is a different challenge, and we’ll have to keep adjusting stocking rates so we can take care of our pastures.”

“During a normal year, we’ll burn pastures in April and get ready to turn out. The calves are old enough to start utilizing it and that green grass does wonders with those cows,” Nikkel says.

“That grass is really high-quality until late July and then it starts to decline. We don’t graze our calving pastures except when we calve, and there is about half of the forage we would normally have this year. As the forage quality declines, we’ll add some supplement and it’ll depend on how tough of a winter we have as to when and what we’ll supplement those cows with.”

Managing the tall grass prairie is something that has been handed down since the beginning of time. Fire was used by the Native Americans because it brought herds of buffalo and other game.

The legendary buffalo, nomadic grazers by trade, implemented the first rotational system by moving on until forages had improved enough to come back to the same area.

Four-legged critters that will end up feeding a growing population still inhabit the Flint Hills, and fire is one of the most important tools used to manage the range. Lack of moisture hurts the ranchers’ ability to take care of the grass.

“Even if we started getting some moisture, we couldn’t burn our pastures because there is not enough fuel to kill the cedar trees and other undesirables. We have to burn to keep the pastures evened up.

“Access to water will dictate grazing habits and sometimes cattle don’t graze pastures evenly,” Bailey says. “The south end of the pasture usually gets grazed more because of the wind.

“The later we can burn usually works better because we can get a good kill on the invaders. Cow grass needs to be burned at least every other year, otherwise it will clump up and the cattle won’t graze it.”

Cows in pasture

Eye on the stocking rate
Stocking rates will also take a hit during the dry period. Lack of moisture could impact pasture health for several years.

“We’re going to decrease our stocking rates by 25 percent at least this year. We’ll reduce the numbers and wait and see what happens with the moisture situation,” Hinkson says.

“How much moisture we get will determine how fast those pastures recover. There will be an adjustment period to try and get that grass back to where it was before it got dry. We’ll have to be better managers and do it a little differently.”

“We were lucky enough that we didn’t have to graze the pastures that we normally stockpile for calving. We had adjusted our numbers so we wouldn’t overgraze,” Nikkel says.

“We are always adjusting our stocking rates. Our synchronization programs and managing our calving seasons have really helped manage our grass. Some decent rains will help a lot, but there is still going to be a recovery time.”

Grazing the yearling cattle is probably what the Flint Hills is best known for, but cow-calf operations also dot the landscape. Rising production costs may have more of an impact on these operations than the short-term yearling grazing operations.

“We calve early and wean our calves early to better manage our cow herd. Our purebred herd will calve in January and the commercials will calve later in the spring. Input costs are rising; they’re up about one-third this year compared to last year,” Nikkel says.

“With our early weaning and the mild winter, our cows are in really good shape despite the lack of moisture.”

“This is good summer country, but it can get tough in the winter. Those cows need protein and the costs have gone through the roof. Thirty years ago we could buy hay a lot cheaper than we could raise it. It’s hard to make that cow-calf work in the heart of the Flint Hills. You get on the edges; it’s a little easier because there is more feed available,” Hinkson says.

“It’s hard to compete with the yearlings and a lot of landowners don’t want cows on their place. It’s getting harder to make that entity work because of the price of feed. If calf prices weren’t what they were, I think we would have seen even more cow herd liquidation. We’ll have a great advantage when it starts raining because the market could go even higher.”

“There is only a certain amount of ground you can put cows on,” Bailey says. “I really enjoy the cow-calf business, but it’s expensive.”

“We have identified pastures that really work well for our cows, and we never put any yearlings in those pastures,” Rinkes says.

“It’s really good grass; even in a dry year we had three open out of 120 bred heifers and two open cows out of 150 in a 90-day breeding season. Our calves were only 38 pounds lighter this year despite the conditions. We have to watch our inputs and get creative because input costs keep going up. Where we’re at, we have the best of both worlds: the Flint Hills native range and we have access to some cool-season pastures, too.”

Undesirable forage species can invade even the best grazing areas. According to these operators, musk thistle used to be the primary bad guy, but it has been eliminated in most cases.

Sericea lespedeza is gaining a strong foothold in the Flint Hills and proving to be a very costly problem.

“There isn’t a chemical on the market we can use that will kill sericea lespedeza. I have to spray it every other year and at $23 per acre, it gets hard to keep justifying the cost,” Bailey says.

“If you don’t spray it, it will take over your pasture and ruin it. It’s a hard one to swallow because one year it looks like you have done a good job – and the next it looks like you didn’t even make a dent.”

A black cow and calf

A share of the land
Private land ownership is what also makes the Flint Hills unique. Most lease agreements are long-standing agreements between landowner and caretaker.

These relationships often extend through generations and relationships are built based on trust.

“The Flint Hills is still made up of a high percentage of absentee owners,” Hinkson says. “Even if ownership changed, caretakers stay the same.”

“There is always competition for your grass. Most of my landowners had agreements with my dad. We always pay the going rate for grass, and I am comfortable with that,” Bailey says.

“Those are long-term lease agreements, and I have to take care of that land. The guys I run cattle for, we’ll get settled up in the fall and are always working toward next year. We have to give the cattle the care we can give them and do what we say we’re going to do. We used to be able to make all these agreements with a handshake; now you better have a paper contract.”

“I operated a custom grazing business, and it got pretty tough when I was competing with the corporate graziers,” Rinkes says.

“Around 98 percent of the land here in the Flint Hills is owned by private landowners. Most want to make long-term written and verbal lease agreements to rent grass. As land values increase, so do grazing fees. We have a really good market, which helps cover these costs, and there’s no telling what kind of a market we’ll have if it starts raining.”

The ability of that yearling to turn low-cost grass into pounds has long been counted on in the Flint Hills. The popular yearling haven is also popular to a growing population that is tired of living in the big city.

Preserving the tall grass prairie may depend on land values or regulations put in place to save this last piece of what once was.

“We have people buying land and moving in. Land values have gone up. A rusty barbed-wire fence and a gravel road aren’t going to stop urban sprawl. This is a really pristine area and hasn’t been littered up. I am not so sure a lot of us want any more traffic,” Rinkes says.

“It’s hard to put your land in some kind of trust for your kids and your grandkids because those regulations are always changing, and you want to make sure your ground stays in the family.”

“We’re 15 miles west of Topeka, and we have a lot of neighbors. There are little tracts being sold to people who want to live in the country but maybe don’t want everything that goes with it,” Nikkel says.

“Luckily, our ground is together. Land values have gone up, and people are paying more than it’s worth for grass.”

Preserving the Flint Hills means more to these ranchers than just taking care of the ground. It is a way of life and a lifestyle they have come to know.

The veteran ranchers all spoke of a better day, and the excitement came through when they thought of the current market with added moisture.

These cattlemen could all teach the urban neighbors a thing or two about getting along and making the best of every situation. The last stretch of tall grass prairie seems to be in good hands.

“We have a bright future if we can get some rainfall. Bringing my boys back to the operation has meant a lot to me. We had to diversify and start buying some customer calves, but we do business the same way we have always done it,” Rinkes says.

“We have to put our education to work and keep accurate records so we know what we can and can’t do financially. Don’t be afraid to learn something new and adapt to changes. Most importantly, we know our costs any given day.”

“If we can get some rain, this cattle market could reach some level we have never seen before,” Hinkson says. “All classes of cattle could be in demand. We have to be optimistic.”

“We are fairly optimistic about the future. We could have a really good market with some moisture,” Nikkel says. “The Flint Hills is a great place to ranch and try and sell bulls. There are a lot of cows close and they have a great local market system to market their product.”

“We have to keep these native pastures as good as we can. We have to adjust stocking rates so we don’t overgraze and grub it off because next year all you will have is weeds,” Bailey says. “It’s my job to take care of the land.”   end mark

Clifford Mitchell is a freelance writer based in Oklahoma.

PHOTO 1: Winters are usually tough in Flint Hills country, but even in warmer months the season will require supplements to the grass.

PHOTO 2: Synchronization of the purebred commercial Angus has adapted Mill Brae Angus to grass resources.

PHOTO 3: Many Flint Hills operations wean calves early to improve benefits for the cow. Photos courtesy of Mill Brae Ranch.

PHOTO 4: TS Hereford and Quarter Horse Ranch sits in the heart of the Flint Hills. Photo courtesy of Wayne and Marcia Bailey.

PHOTO 5: Hinkson Angus Ranch is a fourth-generation operation and home to 400 females. Photos courtesy of Frank Hinkson.