Sarah (Switzer) Sortum lives on her family ranch in northeast Loup County with her husband, Mark, and two boys. In addition to ranching, Sarah and her family operate Calamus Outfitters, a nature-based tourism operation.
It’s hard for a rancher to intentionally start a grass fire, especially in the Sandhills. And there are good reasons for that. But life seems to be a lot about the friends you choose to have. It’s no different for ranchers.
Our friends are critters, great and small. On the domesticated side, our social circle mainly consists of cattle and horses. On the wild, well, each one holds a special place for us, but we really like to hang out with grassland birds, especially the prairie grouse. Yes, our ranching and outfitting businesses both depend on our domestic and wild friends to keep us going, but these friends are also our daily companions, partners, and source of personal enjoyment. One last friend that I can’t leave out is the land itself. It is more than just a resource or a place of business, it is a member of our family. When the land suffers, we suffer. When it shows its bounty, we are blessed. It connects generations of our family together through common experience and purpose.
We are not above the influence of our friends. Because of this, we have attempted to change our views regarding the use of fire on our ranch. Our main goal for using prescribed burns as a management tool is twofold: to improve prairie grouse habitat and to promote better range health by increasing the diversity of plant species.
Believe it or not, prairie grouse (and other grassland birds) prefer wide open, unfragmented grassland habitats. In our area, a big threat to that kind of habitat is the invasive eastern red cedar. In our program, we mechanically cut large trees and pile them in the burn area at least six months prior to the prescribed burn date. Then, these piles are burned as part of the overall burn that will (hopefully) burn any small trees left standing. The removal of these invasive trees makes a dramatic change to the landscape in a short amount of time.
We also want to make sure we are providing quality food sources for the prairie grouse. Using fire helps stimulate forbs, which in turn attracts various small insects that the prairie grouse need (especially young chicks). In addition, we aim to create some structural diversity within areas to provide for all of the stages of the life cycle, from nesting to brood-rearing to over-wintering. Our range health is improved by increasing diversity of plant species as well. We want a full suite of native plants that have deep and healthy root systems. Some of our pastures had started to show a decline in warm season grass species and fire has begun to address that. Ultimately, our goal is to have range that is resilient, offers good grazing for our cattle and provides for native wildlife.
Seeing the benefits from the use of fire on our ranch has made it slightly easier to start prescribed burns, but they could not be successfully performed without the aid of our local volunteer fire department. An early spring burn (we perform our burns in March in order to avoid the prairie grouse nesting season) allows the fire department to make sure all their equipment is in tip top shape for the upcoming fire season as well as train young or new recruits.
The best reward we can have from using fire on our ranch is seeing the land flourish. Grouse dancing, prairie chickens booming, curlews calling and cattle on a thousand hills. Our friends are welcome here anytime.