The unique characteristics of the Flint Hills region has shaped the grazing philosophy of Mushrush Ranches. Through a desire to maximize the benefits of the landscape and overcome the challenges of its environment, we have become stewards to preserve a unique and precious natural resource of the last remaining virgin tallgrass prairie on the continent.
Flinthills Tallgrass Prairie Utilization and Management
Mushrush Ranches is located near the heart of the Flint Hills region, a narrow strip of land spanning east-central Kansas from Oklahoma to Nebraska. 275 Million years ago, the entire area was covered by an ancient inland sea teeming with aquatic life. When these creatures eventually died and settled to the bottom of the sea, the remains piled up. Fluctuating sea levels over the millennia gradually changed the kinds of creatures living, dying, and settling, which built up the sea floor forming alternating layers. Over time these layers compressed into hard limestone and soft shale interspaced with pockets of hard flint. It is this layering of soft and hard rock that eventually eroded into the rolling, stepped hills that characterize the region. When the waters receded, a vast grassland took its place. This grassland, like much of the Great Plains, was roamed by millions of bison in vast herds. Naturally occurring fires caused by spring thunderstorms burned away the dormant grass of last season’s growth and made room for fresh new growth which attracted the bison. Native American tribes who depended on the bison learned to mimic this process and set fire to the prairies to rejuvenate the grass and attract the life-giving herds. These fires and the intense grazing and trampling of bison controlled the encroachment of woody species on the Tallgrass prairie. After European settlement and the mechanization of farming, much of the prairie was plowed under to make room for agricultural crops. The shallow rocky soil of the Flint Hills made it unsuitable for plowing, and because of this, the Flint Hills are some of the last remaining virgin Tallgrass prairie on the continent.
The Tallgrass prairies contain a large variety of plant life including over 1000 species of flowering plants and ferns and more than 100 species of grasses. The four most dominant grasses however, are Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Switch Grass, and Indian Grass. Typical healthy pasture in the Flint Hills consists of roughly 80% grasses and 20% legumes, forbs and other plants. Flint hills pasture is predominantly warm season, resulting in some of the best grazing in the world from May to August, and some of the poorest from November to March. At its peak, fresh growing Tallgrass prairie can contain as much as 18% protein. Dormant prairie grasses however, contain between 2-4% protein. This feast and famine cycle has led to much of the area being utilized as grazing for stockers, where gains of 2.5lbs/day are the norm during the growing season. For those of us who maintain herds of cattle year-round, the Tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills present some unique challenges as well as opportunities.
In order to maintain the pastures in the best condition possible, we try to mimic the conditions that created and maintained the Tallgrass prairies for thousands of years. Every spring, thousands of Flint Hills acres are burned to clear the pastures of old growth and control brush. Unlike many of our neighbors, we do not burn our pastures every year. We rely on the dormant grass for grazing until the fresh grass starts in April. Instead of burning our entire ranch every year, we try to burn each pasture an average of two out of every five years depending on pasture and environmental conditions. This ensures we have adequate winter graze for our cattle into the spring while still being able to capture the important ecological benefits of burning. Controlled burns are extremely important to maintaining the integrity of the delicate ecosystem of the Tallgrass prairie. Because of the amount of rainfall that the area receives, about 30 inches annually, trees and other woody species can thrive here given the right conditions. Coupled with correctly managed grazing animals, controlled burns control the encroachment of species that threaten the balance of the grasslands. Without good management of both fire and grazing, a pasture that has existed as native prairie for centuries can be converted to forest land in as little as 10 years.
Today, we rely on proper grazing management to imitate the grazing patterns of the large unrestricted herds of old. During the active growing season, we maintain our management groups of cattle as large as possible and rotate though multiple pastures in order to intensify the grazing period and provide rest time for regrowth. As the protein content of the grass drops in the fall, we supplement protein to allow the cattle to utilize the grazing as much as possible.
Cover Crop Grazing
We at Mushrush Ranches maintain both spring and fall calving herds in order to offer the options of yearling and 18-month-old age advantage bulls in our annual production sale in March. This means that the timing of peak nutritional requirements of our cattle is at odds with the timing of peak nutritional content of our pastures. In order to close the nutritional gap, we utilize cool season perennial and annual forages stockpiled for use in the winter months grown on converted crop ground. Tall fescue and smooth brome grass represents the bulk of our perennial cool season forage. Our annual forage varies but generally contains cereals such as wheat or rye with a mix of brassicas such as turnips, radishes, or kale. We stockpile this forage until around the first of the year when the weather is harshest and the cattle have largely utilized the dormant warm season grasses. We then intensively manage the grazing on this forage using portable electric fence in order to get the maximum use while allowing enough residue to jumpstart growth in spring when conditions allow. These cool season forages complement our warm season native pasture and help to drastically reduce feeding costs and impact herd health by improving the quality of nutrition through the harsh winter months.