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Slideshow: Grass management on an 18,000-acre spread in the Nebraska Sandhills

Progressive Cattleman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 08 December 2016

In the Nebraska Sandhills, Dave and Loretta Hamilton run cattle on 18,000 acres, which is covered in sand bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, prairie sand reed, sand lovegrass and little bluestem – all native grasses.

Dave’s father began a rotational grazing system in 1962, but it took years of gradual development to bring it to its present grazing system where cattle rotate through 60 pastures (each about 320 acres with a windmill providing water), which are grazed once during the growing season and once during the winter. Their rotational system advanced as water sources were developed and overall has increased carrying capacity by 25 percent.

Dave Hamilton says, “Of the grass species, there’s one key species that I watch – sand bluestem. It’s the most desirable grass – it and indiangrass – because they’re the most palatable. I use those grasses and compare those to historical data on our range and use them to determine AUMs – key species and then overall condition of pasture. Across the whole ranch, we’ll average 0.7 AUM per acre, and that’s summer and winter grazing.”

The original herd of commercial Herefords incorporated Simmental about 35 years ago, using half-blood sires (Simmental-Angus – red and black) on half-blood females. Hamilton keeps about 15 to 20 percent of the heifers for replacements, using A.I. on these heifers and focusing on birth EPD and calving-ease sires. The cow-calf herd today runs 1,200 head.

The ranch also developed two pivots to provide irrigated feed options. One pivot is seeded to alfalfa. The other pivot was leased to a local grower who raised corn. In 2016, that pivot was planted in millet to condition the soil in preparation for rotation back into alfalfa.

Dave is the fourth generation descendent on the ranch. Although Hamilton’s daughters will not be returning to the ranch, Hamilton has carved out a lease arrangement with Lon and Dana Larsen – people who Hamilton felt would “take care of the grass.” Having more recently experienced the drought of 2012, Hamilton is more convinced than ever that the only way to survive a drought and be profitable in roller-coaster markets is to manage the grass. The philosophy has served him well – although during the drought he sold weaned calves and dry cows earlier than normal, he didn’t have to destock any of the main herd.

View this slideshow, which showcases grasses in the Sandhills, to appreciate Hamilton’s management strategies. Photos by Lynn Jaynes. end mark

Read more about the operation.

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