Grazing is a major component of The Nature Conservancy's conservation program in Nebraska. The largest grazing program is at the Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, where around 29,000 acres are leased annually.
North America's native grasslands thrive on specific kinds of disturbances. Two elements in particular have shaped prairie landscapes - fire, and roving herds of large, grass-eating animals. As the animals wander in search of food, they produce a dynamic pattern of habitats that support a wider variety of plants and animals than would be present in their absence. The interaction between large grazers and fire can be managed to yield a landscape pattern more in keeping with the conditions under which Great Plains species evolved.
Two hundred years ago, bison were the principal grass-eaters. Today, cattle predominate. "Cattle are similar to bison in several ways that benefit grassland ecosystems," said Chris Helzer, Eastern Nebraska Program Director. "People often think that bison are inherently better than cattle. In fact, it is how the animals are managed that determines their effect on rangeland health."
For example, at the Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Ranch Manager Doug Kuhre (in consultation with other staff members) develops a diversified grazing program each year, based on a number of factors like weather conditions, previous grazing use, and soil characteristics. "We stock more cattle in pastures with heavier soils," said Kuhre, "and we have lower stocking rates in areas like the sandhills where the soils are light and easily eroded." Grazing management along waterways is even more custom-designed to account for native species with unique habitat needs.
Cattle grazing provides important income as well. The Conservancy uses these earnings to support its conservation programs, to maintain infrastructure, and to pay property taxes on its land holdings. Since cattle grazing is done through leases with private landowners, this practice provide opportunities to highlight the interaction between biodiversity conservation and local economies.