Turnout in the Flint Hills

Each spring truck­loads of cat­tle from as far away as Mex­i­co are brought to the Flint Hills, the last rem­nant of tall­grass prairie in North Amer­i­ca to graze on the rich ear­ly-growth grass – a major logis­tics effort for farm­ers and for­warders.

There’s a peace­ful tran­quil­i­ty to the end­less rolling land­scape of the Flint Hills that’s a lit­tle mis­lead­ing. Take a spring­time dri­ve down the inter­state high­way that slices through this east­ern Kansas grass­land and you’ll see scat­tered groups of stock­er cat­tle (ani­mals weigh­ing 180 to 270kg) graz­ing lazi­ly in lush green pas­tures. How­ev­er, go behind the scenes, on the nar­row black­tops and dusty rock roads that serve North America’s last stretch of tall­grass prairie, and you’ll wit­ness the tur­moil of turnout in the Flint Hills.

Turnout is how locals refer to the 20-day peri­od in the spring when cat­tle from more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) away flood into the Flint Hills to graze on the rich, ear­ly growth of the native grass. Thou­sands of semi-trucks, each haul­ing 100 cat­tle or more, growl over the hills and through the scat­tered cow towns around the clock to deliv­er near­ly a mil­lion head to their sum­mer-graz­ing home.

Tim­ing is crit­i­cal

“Turnout gets a lit­tle crazy,” said Pat Swift, man­ag­er of Live­stock Dis­patch in Cot­ton­wood Falls, Kansas. “I load about 75 trucks a day, and there are three or four oth­er guys in town doing just as many. On big­ger pas­tures, some that are up to 4,500 acres (rough­ly 2000ha) in size, there can be 25 to 30 trucks lined up wait­ing to unload cat­tle.”

Mike Hold­er, dis­trict Exten­sion agent for Chase Coun­ty, Kansas, puts this annu­al under­tak­ing in per­spec­tive. “There are 2,900 peo­ple who live in this coun­ty, and farm­ers and ranch­ers here raise about 2,000 cows through the year. But over about 20 days, usu­al­ly start­ing in late April, more than 1,000 trucks bring in 120,000 stock­er cat­tle, and we’re only 10% of the Flint Hills,” he says of the num­bers.

“Tim­ing is crit­i­cal,” said Cliff Cole, man­ag­er of the Ranch Man­age­ment Group that over­sees sev­en Flint Hills ranch­es with an inven­to­ry of more than 50,000 cat­tle. “We need to get as much weight on our cat­tle as pos­si­ble, and that means get­ting pas­tures stocked on time. It’s like har­vest­ing wheat or plant­i­ng corn – every day is extreme­ly valu­able.”

“The cat­tle come from every­where,” added Swift. “Many are right out of Mex­i­co, oth­ers come from graz­ing on win­ter wheat fields in Kansas, Okla­homa, and Texas. Some cat­tle come from the Corn Belt, where they grazed on corn stalks, and oth­ers out of Ten­nessee, Alaba­ma, and the south­east. It takes every live­stock hauler we can find to get the job done.”

Cheap gains

Trucks haul cat­tle to the Flint Hills today for the same rea­son train cars and trail dri­ves have brought them over the past 150 years. It’s unques­tion­ably the most effi­cient and eco­nom­i­cal place in the world to add weight to cat­tle. In the ear­ly spring, the native bluestem (Andro­pogon ger­ardii) pas­ture is so high in pro­tein and min­er­als that the dai­ly rate of gain on year­ling steers rivals that of feed­ing corn, but at a sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er cost and with much less labour. “It’s tru­ly amaz­ing grass,” says Tay­lor Grace, a fourth- gen­er­a­tion Mis­souri ranch­er whose fam­i­ly has pas­tured cat­tle in the Flint Hills for near­ly three decades. “In cen­tral Mis­souri, our cat­tle gain 1 to 1½ pounds a day (0.5 to 0.8kg/day), but send them to the Flint Hills from April to Sep­tem­ber and they gain 2½ to 4 pounds a day (1.2 to 2kg/day).”

In cen­tral Mis­souri, our cat­tle gain 1 to 1½ pounds a day (0.5 to 0.8kg/day), but send them to the Flint Hills from April to Sep­tem­ber and they gain 2½ to 4 pounds a day (1.2 to 2kg/day).

Tay­lor Grace

At the Hen­der­son Ranch, near War­saw, Mis­souri, Grace helps grow­ing cat­tle gath­ered from local cow/calf pro­duc­ers. “In April, we send sev­er­al thou­sand head to graze on pas­tures we rent in the Flint Hills, either in dou­ble­stock or full-sea­son pro­grams. Pas­ture rent is heav­i­ly influ­enced by the price of corn, and ranges from $70 to $130 (€60 to €115) per ani­mal,” he said.

Increas­ing stock­ing rates

Three decades ago, range man­age­ment spe­cial­ists at Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty devel­oped an inten­sive ear­ly stock­ing pro­gram that trans­formed both the cal­en­dar and the cash flow on many Flint Hills ranch­es. The tra­di­tion­al sea­son-long pro­gram has cat­tle on the grass for 150 days at a stock­ing rate around four acres (1.6ha) per ani­mal. In con­trast, inten­sive ear­ly stock­ing takes advan­tage of the fact that the great­est gain is in the first part of the sea­son. After mid-July the grass qual­i­ty declines as nutri­ents are trans­ferred to the roots.

Hold­er explained that by dou­bling and even tripling the tra­di­tion­al stock­ing rates, cat­tle are ready to move to feed­lots, typ­i­cal­ly locat­ed in west­ern Kansas, Nebras­ka, Okla­homa, and Texas, after graz­ing just 90 days. Research stud­ies found the more inten­sive approach result­ed in the pro­duc­tion of an addi­tion­al 35 pounds of beef per acre (40kg/ha).

“So many ranch­es have shift­ed to inten­sive ear­ly graz­ing that the bed­lam has got­ten near­ly as bad when cat­tle come off the grass in July as when they go on it in April. And, since they weigh 200 to 300 pounds (90 to 140kg) more than when they came, it actu­al­ly takes even more trucks to haul them out,” said Hold­er.

Boost from burn­ing

Vol­un­teers like Bob­by God­frey help explain the tall­grass cul­ture to vis­i­tors at a recent Sym­pho­ny in the Flint Hills.

Three fea­tures are large­ly respon­si­ble for the beau­ty and the boun­ty of the Flint Hills: shal­low top­soil, fire, and a graz­ing cul­ture. The first of those, the imbed­ded lay­ers of shale and lime­stone that the first home­stead­ers encoun­tered, spared 4.5m ac (1.8m ha) of the grass­land from their ploughs, the fate that befell the rest of the orig­i­nal 150m ac (60m ha) of tall­grass prairie.

Fire has long been a crit­i­cal part of the Flint Hills’ ecosys­tem. Reg­u­lar burn­ing, whether due to light­ning, native Amer­i­can Indi­ans, or today’s ranch man­agers, has been a proven way to boost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and also ward off the weeds and woody species that would oth­er­wise turn the prairie into a wood­land.

“Moth­er Nature used fire to take care of the grass hun­dreds of years before cat­tle got to the Flint Hills, and we’ve learned to do the same,” said Ryan Arndt, a third-gen­er­a­tion ranch­er from Empo­ria, Kansas. Kansas State’s Clen­ton Owens­by says steers graz­ing on pas­tures burned at the begin­ning of spring growth of the dom­i­nant tall­grass species will gain 32 pounds (14.5kg) more than on an unburned pas­ture. “Fire removes the old dead grass, allow­ing the soil to warm which spurs soil micro­bial activ­i­ty and nutri­ent uptake. Also, burn­ing releas­es nutri­ents in the old mate­r­i­al and destroys woody growth,” he said.

Smoke as part of life

Pre­scribed spring burn­ing and prop­er graz­ing are crit­i­cal to man­age­ment of the tall­grass prairie.

Fire also cre­ates smoke, and exces­sive amounts of it have raised air qual­i­ty con­cerns in com­mu­ni­ties down­wind from the Flint Hills. Two years ago, the ranch­ing com­mu­ni­ty worked with the US Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) and state health offi­cials to devel­op a vol­un­tary Smoke Man­age­ment Plan in response to those con­cerns. “The plan has helped some,” said Hold­er, “but when we burn a lot, like it looks like we will this spring, I’m afraid we could still have prob­lems. Ranch­ers, and those out­side the indus­try who have stud­ied the tall­grass ecosys­tem, under­stand that fire is a nat­ur­al evil, and a lit­tle smoke is part of life out here.”

In 1867 a steer was worth about $2 in Texas, but $40 if it could be deliv­ered to Chica­go. This huge prof­it poten­tial spurred the leg­endary cat­tle dri­ves to the Flint Hills, where cat­tle were fat­tened before being shipped east. “Large tracts of land, unbro­ken by roads and oth­er devel­op­ment, make sea­son­al graz­ing effi­cient,” said Hold­er. “There’s a desire among many fam­i­lies to keep ranch­es togeth­er through gen­er­a­tions. There’s also tremen­dous inter­est for cur­rent ranch­es to grow and for out­side investors to put new ones togeth­er.”

There’s also tremen­dous inter­est in telling the sto­ry of the Flint Hills. Each spring, ranch­ers take turns host­ing a grass-roots per­for­mance by the Kansas City Sym­pho­ny. This Sym­pho­ny in the Flint Hills gives local vol­un­teers a chance to share the beau­ty and explain the chal­lenges of their ranch­ing lifestyle with a crowd large­ly from near­by cities of Wichi­ta and Kansas City.

In sim­i­lar fash­ion, the recent­ly opened Flint Hills Dis­cov­ery Cen­ter, in Man­hat­tan, Kansas, uses an elab­o­rate array of exhibits and pro­grams to aid vis­i­tors in under­stand­ing the ecosys­tem of the tall­grass prairie. “The Flint Hills are tru­ly unique,” says Arndt. “I feel it when rid­ing home by the light of the moon after mov­ing a string of cat­tle to a new pas­ture.”