NEBRASKAland

NEBRASKAland December 2018

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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DECEMBER 2018 • NEBRASKAland 47 great for the environment." In the spring of 2016 and 2017, the Franks planted seven of their center pivots, totaling 935 acres, back to grassland using seed mixes containing 60 species of prairie grasses and wildflowers native to the Sandhills. Though most of the thousands of pounds of seed was purchased from seed dealers, Dan and Allyson also hand collected the seed of bush morning glory, silky prairie clover, rough gayfeather and other wildflowers from their Sandhills pastures. "In the spring of both years, I drove the tractor and drill planted the clean, purchased seed," Frank said. "I scattered the uncleaned seed we collected from the back of our UTV while Allyson drove." Both summers, Frank irrigated the new seedings using the pivots resulting in the rapid establishment of the prairie plants. The pivots will eventually be removed. The Franks will wait three years after planting before grazing cattle on the restored prairie and receiving income off the former cropland. Meanwhile, with the actual pivots still on the land those areas' property values and taxes will remain high. "For the first few years the restorations will be a financial drain. This is just one of the reasons it's so hard for most ranchers and farmers to do this," Frank said. The timing of the restorations, however, worked nicely for the Franks. With recent low crop prices the pivots had become less profitable and, after over 30 years of ranching and farming, Dan's parents were in a solid financial position and could now afford to make changes to their operation – now blending conservation with production. "Allyson and I never could have afforded to restore the pivots back to prairie without my parents' help," said Frank. "It was too expensive." The seed alone for the restoration cost the Franks more than $100,000, and there was also the expense of planting and running the pivots to aid seedling establishment. "Let's face it, I was the main initiator of the restorations, but my parents are responsible for making it happen. The passion Allyson, my sisters and I have for healthy and productive prairie had rubbed off just enough on my parents to get this done." Because the pivots are in the sensitive Long Pine Creek watershed, the Natural Resource Conservation Service provided the Franks cost- share for the seed through their Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Northern Prairies Land Trust and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also provided guidance or cost-share for the plantings. Last summer, when I visited the restored prairies, they were already thick with native grasses and the vibrant blooms of wildflowers. Bees and butterflies floated about in pollinator heaven while the air hummed with the melodic song of dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows and other grassland birds. From a hunter's perspective, I saw excellent habitat for deer, pheasants, quail and prairie grouse. A Prairie Ethic "Though some might think we restored the pivots just to have pretty wildflowers, we will still utilize the land," said Frank. "Our crop will be beef, no longer grain." Frank stressed that cattle grazing will also be used as a tool to keep the restorations, as well as their native Sandhills prairies, healthy and biologically diverse. "Prairie continues to be plowed under, not only in the Sandhills, but throughout the Great Plains, and in areas, what prairie remains is terribly degraded. Allyson and I find this heart-wrenching and we have decided do something about it on our ranch," Frank said, adding that, as finances allow, they hope to restore more pivots to prairie in the years to come. "We ranch to make a living and because we enjoy it, but we want to do it in a manner that enhances our land for nature and future generations of ranchers." ■ College exposed Dan Frank to new methods of grassland management, one being the use of prescribed fire. Recently, Dan and Allyson have learned the art of conducting burns by attending prescribed fire workshops and by assisting conservationist groups and other ranchers with fires. They now conduct prescribed burns on their own ranch. Prescribed burning has traditionally been considered taboo in the Sandhills and is still little used by ranchers who fear the fire escaping and rampaging across the prairie-covered dunes. Local lore also holds that burning will expose the sands to wind erosion and that a pasture cannot be grazed for a year or two after burning to prevent harming sprouting grasses and the soil. Research is proving these traditional beliefs false and that prescribed fire can provide ecological and economic benefits in areas of the Sandhills, and be conducted safely. "Fire can be vital in maintaining healthy grasslands," said Frank. "In areas with eastern red-cedar invasion, burning is the only cost- effective method of controlling them. Any rancher with cedar problems should be a fan of prescribed fire." Dan and Allyson showed me one pasture they had burned the previous two springs. "Both years, we turned cattle onto the pasture just three weeks after the fire," Frank said. "We grazed it really hard for three to five weeks, then rested it from June through August and grazed it again in the fall." He has found this management especially effective in reducing the spring and fall-growing, non-native smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass that are invading his low-lying prairies and which he hates with a passion. As ranchers, he and Allyson appreciate the sand bluestem, prairie sandreed and other cattle-fattening native grasses this practice promotes. As prairie enthusiasts, they are grateful for the lush response of wildflowers. C ll ll d D F k Fire and Wildflowers Allyson Dather stands alongside shell-leaf penstemons in a recently burned Sandhills pasture. The tattoo is a collage of her favorite prairie wildflowers.

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