Community Conservation

The Sproul Ranch spans 7,500 acres near Sedan, Kansas, in the south-central region of the state. Bill and Peggy Sproul have been ranching the area for about 10 years. In order to keep his land, soil, and cows healthy and productive, Bill Sproul maintains a management style that is mindful of the larger systems that surround his operation. His strong land ethic and unique approach to grazing allow him work within natural systems to create numerous positive benefits for his ranch all while saving time and energy.

Utilizing a patch burning method, Bill’s noteworthy approach to management intensive grazing improves countless aspects of his operation. His emphasis on community-based conservation takes the whole system into account - making decisions based on what is good for the ecosystem which improves the quality of the soil, water, and prairie habitat. Bill Sproul is an innovative example of responsible stewardship of the conversation of soil, water, and grassland communities.

The community is all tied together and each thing depends on the other to make the community strong and when you view land as a community, you belong to the community. You don’t own the land no more, you belong to the community.

Commodity vs. Community Conservation - Bill Sproul from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Water

Quality. On the eastern side of Kansas in the Flint Hills, saving water is not as much of a pressing issue as it is in western Kansas. Even so, the key to a successful operation and healthy ecosystem is keeping the water on the land and in the soil. Spoul’s ranching techniques of patch burning and management intensive grazing greatly reduce erosion and the negative impacts from cattle to the soil surface. His focus on soil health means that water stays on the land and infiltrates into the soil. The increased subsurface water feeds shallow aquifers, springs, and ponds, as well as helps keep the grasses healthier during times of low rainfall. He explains,

"The healthier the soil, the more organic matter, the greater water infiltration, the greater the storage capacity. This means more water, which leads to greater forage production, which produces more efficient cattle.”

In order to manage his cattle with soil health in mind, Bill puts livestock supply lines through ponds with drinkers below. The ponds themselves are fenced to keep cattle out. Cattle have a significant impact on soil erosion especially on areas near ponds or rivers. Erosion near such areas greatly reduces water quality though increased turbidity and particulate matter.

Redefining Wealth as Soil Health from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

 

Patch Burning. Bill Spoul uses a patch-burn technique of grazing management. Patch-burn is a system in which one third of the land is burned and the other two thirds of land are not, leaving the previous years’ growth untouched. Cattle will graze heaviest on the most recently burned portion of the ground. About 20% of the cattle will also feed on the portion of land that was burned the previous year and no cattle at all will graze on the section of land that was burned two years ago. The benefits that Bill finds to using the patch burn method are numerous. One benefit is the positive impacts to wildlife – leaving two thirds of his land to grow every year provides habitat for numerous grassland birds and other species. Bill explains "Wildlife is just like plants that are here, they’re a real true indicator of the health that’s going on out there.” Another management practice that Bill employs is brush control on the woody invasive species found on the majority of the acres he owns and a large portion of the prairie that he rents. He estimates that about 30,000 trees have been cut and sprayed on the portion of land that he owns. Reducing woody brush and trees significantly improves the hydrology of the prairie systems while keeping it as native as possible. He uses prescribed fire (patch burn) as a follow-up measure for brush control.  Bill says,

One of the huge threats we got to the prairie is invasives and one of them being Sericea Lespedeza and the other one is the tree encroachment. Trees are just coming at a phenomenal rate to the prairie . . . The grasses and all the native plants have all evolved around fire and their growing points are below ground and woody tree species’ growing points are above ground and so fire keeps them at bay – that’s the trump card that Mother Nature put into the mix when she created the tallgrass prairie.

Patch burn benefits prairie ecosystems from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Energy

Saving Fuel. Ever mindful about his influence on the land, Bill explains that you "will forever be remembered by the tracks you leave behind.” As a result, he treads lightly across his land, scarring it as little as possible, primarily using horses for cattle management. Not only do horses have a minimal impact on the land but their use saves on fuel costs which is a major expense for most agricultural operations. Further, Bill works to maximize efficiency versus maximizing production. He runs lighter equipment, takes fewer trips, and undertakes fewer activities that require fuel along with numerous other methods that save him money through fuel costs.

Grassland Management. Through patch burning and best grazing practices, Bill Sproul saves an abundance of energy and time. Sproul uses no fertilizers and uses herbicides on a very limited basis, only for spot spraying of invasive species. The rest of the grassland management is done with a match and other best management practices. The better the grass becomes and the healthier the soil becomes and the more forage I produce… I have the natural resources to run more cattle now.

Cattle Management. Bill’s cattle waterers have a continuous flow which is just enough to keep them from freezing, saving the energy that it would otherwise take to keep the water unfrozen. Another grazing management technique that Bill uses is for his cow herd to graze standing forage year round only putting up a minimum amount of hay for emergencies which is a costly process both in time, effort, and fuel. Bill explains that he used to be a commodity based conservationist – now, having switched over to a community based conservation mindset, he has found himself not only conserving land and resources but energy and money as well.

Patch Burning. His tried and true method of patch burning saves him money and energy in numerous ways. One way that patch burning saves energy and money is because it is rotational grazing without fencing which eliminates the need for internal electric fencing, solar or otherwise. Another benefit to patch burn grazing is less soil erosion. Stockers have a tendency to trail along fences which leads to soil erosion – by eliminating fences you also eliminate the trailing effect. Patch burning and management intensive grazing maximizes the forage productivity and plant diversity which allows for excellent gains on the cattle.

Trying to save energy, actually, I’m making energy I guess you would say because now instead of burning one energy I’m making another energy… I’m collecting more sun, I’m sequestering more carbon, my air quality’s got to be going up.

Slowing Down and Saving Energy from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.


Progress

Community-Based Conservation. Sproul explains that he used to be a "commodity-based conservationist” meaning that he would only implement conservation measures if he was paid to do so, otherwise he would not. Now he practices community-based conservation based on Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. As a community-based conservationist, Bill explains that you're part of the land. He states "I consider now my savings account to be in the land – to be in the plants, to be in the grass.” When destocking or implementing new grazing practices, brush removal, spot treatment vs. whole pasture spraying, etc., he makes his choices based on what is best for the community.

Now, I get rewarded because I grow more grass, have more water and more cattle. Everything I do is better. Back when I was commodity based, I was always struggling for higher returns and spending more money trying to get there. Now, I am trying to revisit how I measure wealth.

Ecology. With all the other practices at the Sproul Ranch, it’s no surprise that he selects cattle for resistance to worms. He has discontinued using wormers because of their harm to dung beetles. Dung beetles break down manure in such a way that it inhibits horn fly reproduction. A healthy community of dung beetles keeps the horn flies population down so there is no need to spray insecticides – which costs money and energy to create and apply. Dung beetles also create tunnels for water infiltration, reducing erosion and promoting the retention of water in the soil.

 

The Dung Beetle and Water Retention from Climate + Energy Project on Vimeo.

I’m real focused on the horn fly reduction, water infiltration, and nutrient recycling all done by just one beetle – one little beetle, a dung beetle of all things.. There’s probably even more things the dung beetle does for me and I don’t even know what they are…There’s my wealth. My wealth is I don’t have to buy insecticides to spray the cattle no more, I don’t have to buy this extra feed because I got this water infiltration going on, all because of this one little species.

Involvement. Bill Sproul is actively involved in wildlife studies and he works closely with a multitude of organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism, the Kansas Biological Survey, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and others such as the Nature Conservancy. He holds leadership roles in the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance, the Ranchland Trust of Kansas, and the Kansas Livestock Association. He has been a director on the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, Inc. board of directors since it reorganized in 2006 and has also served as a chairman. He is a board member for the Partners for Conservation, a national rancher-driven organization that seeks to work on issues involving the federal/state - private lands interface, especially in dealing with wildlife concerns. In 2010, the Sproul Ranch received a regional environmental award from the National Cattlemen and Beef Association, nominated through KLA.

Bill Sproul's approach to ranching presents an innovative and replicable model for land and resource management in the plains. Wise stewardship of water and soil resources, as well as efficient energy use, results in a more profitable ranch and a healthier ecosystem. This approach leads to community resilience. Bill explains,

We have to manage for the extremes - high wind, high rainfall, no rainfall, wildfires, major snowstorms. It all goes back to soil health, if you have a healthy community and ecosystem and you manage for efficiency, not production, these things come and go. If you hold on to water in the soil longer, you grow grass longer. But if stock water is gone, get the cattle off the ranch. The climate is constantly changing so it's not so much to me how do I recover or catch up from a drought, it's how can I predict the next one and can I get a plan ahead of time that is even better than the last one I had. The land is the wealth, the community is the wealth. Water quality, retention, infiltration, the more I have, the wealthier I am.

Commodity vs. community conservation

Redefining Wealth as Soil Health

Slowing down and saving energy

Patch burn benefits prairie

How one small beetle impacts the prairie

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RESOURCES
Patch Burn Grazing
Patch-Burn Grazing Effects on Cattle Performance: Research Conducted in a Working Landscape
Patch Burning to Enhance Wildlife Habitat
USDA Rural Energy for America Program