Evolving Grazing Management

Field with black cattle

Winter calving left an indelible mark on a young Russ Sundstrom. He would wake to calves warming in the bathtub. He arrived home from school to calves in the kitchen.

“Calving was rough. I don’t know if it was a hate or a dislike, but that was part of my search for sustainability, of making things easier,” Sundstrom said. “I just felt that we were working against things instead of with the weather and nature.”

Sundstrom operates Broken Box Ranch in the Loess Canyons of western Nebraska, where wildlife is abundant, the land highly erodible and invasive cedars a constant foe. Sundstrom, a 2019 Leopold Award winner, has built a career centered on restorative ranching practices, including intensive rotational and mob grazing. He also works with conservation groups and government agencies to support wildlife, protect water and increase plant diversity on his land.

“Some of the different types of stuff we’ve been involved in, we might be the first one, even to the point where they are still writing the script, per se,” Sundstrom said. “Even if something doesn’t work, the information gained from it is very valuable.”

Developing a Network of Mentors

Sundstrom is always seeking information. His father understood the importance of eliminating cedars in their area, and, while still in high school, Sundstrom started a tree-removal service that he still operates with his younger brother. Each time the brothers stepped onto an operation, they took note of what was working, asked a lot of questions and, over time, developed a network of mentors.

“I had someone tell me a lot of years ago that instead of trying to negatively critique someone’s operation, try to pick the positives or the best things they are doing,” Sundstrom said. “A lot of our thoughts and ideas are things we watched other people do, then just tweaked to fit our operation.”

The tree-clearing business has provided the Sundstroms a unique view into the impact of their work. Many clients clear ground over multiple years, allowing the brothers to observe change over time.

“We could see their stocking rates change from where we left off the year before, or a division fence go in,” Sundstrom said. “I’d get to look at what I did five, four and three years ago and see the process change. That is very rewarding.”

On his own ranch, Sundstrom uses wildlife as one measurement of progress. “Wildlife will tell you how you’re doing. We have watched as our rotational grazing went to mob grazing. The wildlife is ahead for a while, then they graze behind our livestock because that’s where the best grazing is.

“I like seeing that we’re creating an environment where the wildlife not only survive but also thrive. I feel if you’re managing for sustainability, it should all go hand in hand.”

Embracing Prescribed Burns

This includes embracing fire for land management. About 20 years ago, in the midst of drought, a wildfire broke out in the area. Afterward, as he rebuilt fences, he watched the return of wildlife and, a year later, the grasses.

“It might have set things back a little bit in the short term,” Sundstrom said, “but in the intermediate and long term, I witnessed a lot of benefits and stored those in my memory.”

Today, Sundstrom considers prescribed burns instrumental to the sustainability of his ranch. Like anything, he said, prescribed burns can be overdone. But if practiced and timed correctly, they eliminate cedars, fertilize the ground and support the growth of certain grasses.

Almost every acre of his ranch has been treated with prescribed burns. The result is a holistic approach to grazing and fencing. The family adopted rotational grazing in the mid-2000s, more intense rotational grazing around 2010 and mob grazing about six years later. Sundstrom has reviewed records spanning 20 years, going back to the late 1990s, to calculate the impact of his crossfencing practices.

“We figured that we increased our stocking rate by approximately 40% from where we started. That is huge.” But in multiple years, he noted, the area enjoyed aboveaverage rainfall. (“If it’s raining, whatever you do with livestock, you look like a genius.”) Accounting for the inherent benefit of rain, he said, that number likely is inflated. “Take that 40% and maybe scale that down to 25% if we hadn’t had the rain.”

Measuring Impact

Sundstrom relies on his record keeping for business decisions. It also has been instrumental to his collaborations. Sundstrom estimates he has worked with 25 to 30 different government agencies and outside organizations. One of those relationships, with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, led to tours of his ranch.

“On these tours, I feel like I need to point out that it’s not me educating them,” Sundstom said. “A lot of times, it’s them educating me. Once we started opening up to questions or maybe even some criticism, that’s when we started to grow the most. You have to have your facts together and know what you are doing and its impact. It’s been quite a journey.”

At the end of a given year, Sundstrom looks at standard measurement to assess how he performed – costs, livestock sales, the amount of livestock he ran. Just as important, he said, is what he observes around him.

“It’s also as I drive out across a piece of property and see gophers going crazy, the water infiltration rate improving and the health of the grass. You just have to see and feel it. When the gophers are pushing up and the cow trails are grassing over, you know healing is taking place.”



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