Description

The Ferrell Ranch was established by Pete Ferrell’s great-grandfather in 1888. Located near the rural community of Beaumont, Kansas, the ranch covers 7,000 acres of native tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills. For many years, the ranch thrived as a custom grazing operation utilizing intensive rotational grazing. However, the recent drought years have prompted Pete to change practices to incorporate livestock more suited to drought conditions. As Pete explains, "What we’re doing is reducing the number of animals owned by other producers and increasing the number of livestock adapted to and owned by the ranch.”

The ranch is 100% native prairie with no planted, non-native acreage. Pete employs an annual land management plan which outlines burning requirements and the intensive grazing system. Updated according to climatic conditions, the plan prioritizes the health of the land and the surrounding ecosystem. Limited burning allows for greater plant diversity but also recovery of native species. Intensive rotational grazing requires cattle to move frequently allowing for long periods of recovery between grazing. This system of brief grazing and long recovery times allows for the development of a deeper layer of plant litter which improves the soil resulting in improved water infiltration, retention, and drought tolerance.

Water

Increasing infiltration

Intensive rotational grazing, or managed intensive grazing, is a best management practice where pastures are divided into smaller paddocks, or cells, that are grazed intensively for a brief period of time followed by a longer period of rest. This cycle of grazing and resting ensures that pastures have adequate time to regrow before they are grazed again. Additionally, focusing grazing encourages livestock to eat everything that is available instead selectively grazing. As the NRCS fact sheet explains,

In order to maximize forage growth, livestock are strategically moved through a series of fresh pastures in order to provide a "grazing-rest period” for plants to regrow their leaves; which in turn photosynthesize more plant tissue; which then grow at a faster rate because there is more leaf material. Continuous grazing (the alternative to rotational grazing) tends to result in the best forage plants being weakened by regular grazing, while the least desirable plants thrive. This results in poor grazing efficiency because only part of the vegetation is utilized at its optimum rate.

As Pete explains, rotational grazing results in a "more even impact on the land, less overgrazing, and less bare ground.” Less bare ground means higher soil organic matter, better soil health, and improved water infiltration.

The biggest benefit of high stock density is that we create a thatch, a litter material at the ground level that assists and accelerates absorption of moisture. It is essential to have that litter cover in place when it rains. It increases the effective uptake or the effective absorption. When we do this particular grazing method much more goes into the ground as opposed to running off into gullies. When it rains, we make better use of the rain. We catch more of it and more goes into growing new plants.

 What we’re doing here helps the water infiltrate the soil better. It also helps with water quality because of the percolation effect…when it does rain heavily, we aren’t moving as much soil, so the run off is cleaner.

Upgrading water systems

The ranch is also getting some upgrades to the watering facilities this spring in the hopes of capturing more water when it does rain. Ferrell plans to install a water pipeline system to better manage available water resources. Once installed, the pumping system will be 100% solar powered. Additionally, they are looking into changing stock tanks from the existing 36 foot diameter tanks to smaller troughs with a higher refill rate. Pete explains, "Rather than having water standing out in the open, troughs will be filled on demand from the pipeline system. We don’t want so much water standing around evaporating.”

Drought-readiness

Making the best use of available water resource is a primary motivation for Pete Ferrell. The recent years of drought have prompted many changes on the Ferrell Ranch, all with an eye toward a future. After many years of successful custom grazing, Pete is transitioning to ownership, as he explains,

We’ve got to find a way to earn more per unit because I can’t run as many units. The potential of frequent drought is forcing me to change my economic model. We’d like to get out of the commodity business, and move toward selling more as 100% grass fed beef and bison.

This transformation was sparked by the drought of 2011 -2013 and the inability to host the large volume of cattle needed to make money custom grazing. In the spring of 2013, Pete recalled,

This ranch used to handle around 2,000 to 3,000 head (2 years ago). We’re gonna be at maybe 1,600 to 1,700 head this year. That’s a 40% reduction in livestock because of the drought. If you are custom grazing cattle owned by other producers, that’s a 40% reduction in revenue right off the top. One of the things I had to do was discharge my one full-time employee…and I’m now literally back in the saddle.

In addition to a new business model, the ranch is also seeing new breeds. Anticipating that prolonged droughts will become the new normal in south central Kansas, Ferrell began looking for breeds better suited to survival with less water. The spring of 2013 saw the arrival of Corrientes cattle and buffalo on the Ferrell Ranch.

The livestock we’ve chosen to buy are desert cows and bison because we think they will be adapted to a drier, harsher environment. With climate change, we’re not going to be able to stock this country as heavily as we used to. We need to find an animal that uses less of our resources. If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to up the stocking rates as appropriate. I’m anticipating reduced stocking and droughts that are longer and more severe. I’m planning on drought and so far everything is going according to plan. I’m hoping to obtain the same financial returns with 40% fewer animals.

Energy

Planning with a mind toward the future has worked well for Pete.  The Ferrell ranch is home to one of the very first wind farms in Kansas, the Elk River Wind Farm.  

The ranch has a long history of wind.  Pete’s grandfather had an interest in wind and the headquarters of the ranch was initially powered by a wind generator.  The idea to put a utility-scale wind farm on the ranch was a long-time coming.  On a vacation to Hawaii in 1989, Pete saw a wind farm on a ranch and was impressed that it was a great fit in such an ecologically sensitive environment.  In 1994, when a developer approached him with a plan for the Elk River Wind Farm, Pete was on board. 

Built in 2005, the 150 MW wind farm was also the largest in Kansas at the time.  Conservative estimates projected that the farm would produce enough to power 42,000 residences, although Pete proudly relates that the wind farm has "consistently overproduced from projections, at times producing enough to power 60,000 residences.”  A 2006 article in the Topeka Capital-Journal attests to this fact, claiming that the wind farm created enough electricity to serve 60,000 homes in the first 10 months of operation.  The graph below from the Kansas Energy Information Network further proves the high production rates of the Elk River Wind Farm.

The Elk River Wind Farm was projected to offset 344,569 metric tons of CO2 per year.  Construction of the wind farm brought up to 200 jobs with 8 to ten full-time, permanent positions in the community.  Additionally, the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) agreement provides for a total payment of $2,250,000 ($150,000 per year) to Butler County, KS, over the project’s 15 year timeline.

 

Covering approximately 7,907 acres, 50 of the 100 turbines are located across the Ferrell ranch.  According to the Elk River Fact Sheet, "approximately two percent of the project’s land area is occupied by the actual turbine footprint, leaving the rest of the land available for other purposes, including cattle ranching and farming operations.”  The turbines on the ranch have provided a steady income stream offering flexibility that helped survive the recent drought years.  Pete explains, "the flexibility allowed me to survive the drought.  The wind farm allowed me to de-stock without concern to make my financial obligations”

The Ferrell ranch presents a unique hybrid that is well-suited for Kansas, a state that ranks second for wind potential.


 

Progress

While the wind farm provides benefits for the ranch and the local community, Pete is clear that his first priority is the land upon which the turbines stand. The wind farm provides flexibility to prioritize the health of the soil and the entire ecosystem. Pete explains,

I want to be known as a good steward of this place. I care about its perpetuation. We will have tours out here and people are so fascinated by the machines that they don’t look at the miracle at their feet…we can live without the turbines…but without photosynthesis, we’re done.

Intensive rotational grazing leads to healthier pastures, higher soil organic matter, improved water infiltration and water quality. While custom grazing allows flexibility to destock in accordance with available resources, selecting livestock adapted to drought presents a long-term solution to decreased water availability. Adapting practices to fit new situations is key to resilience and profitability. Pete explains,

"The way you make money is not by buying anything, but by changing your practices. You can’t buy a profit. This is a very low input system here…It relies on solar power. That’s the beauty of it. We just have to pay attention and be good stewards and we can make money.

Influenced by work as an archaeologist in his youth, Pete has seen first-hand the impacts of poor management:

I was an archaeologist out at the Four Corners. I was literally digging up the human remains of an advanced culture that had everything going for it…there were 80,000 people living together at Chaco Canyon. In the matter of 5 years it was all gone. You know why? ...they lost their topsoil.

Many of the recent changes at the ranch are prompted by the anticipated effects of climate change in the area. Embracing a conservationist ethic, Ferrell is working to ensure that the ranch will thrive given any scenario. 

Water will get to be an extremely valuable and rare commodity statewide. I can’t help but think that conservation practices will come to the forefront when we start discussing whether we have residential drinking water or put it on crops. 

Of course, this is more of an issue for farmers than for me as a rancher. Right now, my use of water is limited to what falls from the sky but if you’re pumping from a reservoir or a river, the use of that water will be contested.

If you want to be successful, you better position yourself to be extremely conservation minded.

Pete Ferrell will be featured on a major documentary, "Years of living dangerously,” coming out on Showtime in April 2013. "Against the Wind,” the session focusing on Ferrell, will air in May. For more info, see: http://yearsoflivingdangerously.com/

PHOTO GALLERY
Click to open gallery.
"WIND ENERGY" FEATURING ELK RIVER WIND FARM

RESOURCES
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
Elk River Farm money plan
NRCS Rotational Grazing fact sheet
Years of Living Dangerously: Against the Wind
Elk River Farm Fact Sheet