"One Ounce of Grass and the Barber County Economy" by Nathan Lee, Barber County, Kansas Barber County, Kansas.  

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One Ounce of Grass and the Barber County Economy

by Nathan Lee

I have been asked a few times to start a weblog (blog) for this website, but have balked because I did not know how to begin. Often the hardest part of a project is simply taking the first step. I now know where to begin. I will begin with my interests, my passions, and I believe, the County's long-term interests. Perhaps some feedback will be the source of a follow-up blog.

There has been a steady gnashing-of-teeth in the local community development circles about just how to prevent the steady loss of jobs and population in Barber County. The youth that are born here do not stay here. The census indicates a slow drain of human numbers that are going to populate nearby cities or other states. Every time the gypsum industry suffers some kind of speed-bump, the County goes into another panic about "what if the gyp mine and mill close down?"

My position has remained the same. This county was originally settled by agriculturists. This county is composed primarily of native grasslands. It is, and always has been, one of the largest cow-calf counties in the State, along with Comanche and Greenwood Counties. Isn't there some way to prop-up the existing economy with the existing beef industry?

The answer is an emphatic YES. The current grazing practices and philosophy about cattle and land, largely unchanged since the late 1800s, are inadequate to properly utilize the land resource. They do not take into account seasonal and yearly changes in rainfall, real-world behavior of the grazing animals, and the micro-environment and growth stages of the grass plants themselves. The Old School of Grazing's dictum is "take your number of acres and divide by 10. That is your number of cows. If it does not rain, and your cows start to look thin, either take them to the sale or buy some hay for them until it rains." I am being somewhat facetious, but I do believe it is too simplistic to maintain this program indefinitely. It is NOT sustainable for the livestock, for the people on the land, and, most importantly, for the land resource itself.

Simply put, the soils of the world have been severely damaged irreparably by agriculture, primarily in loss of organic matter, or carbon. A test of virgin prairie graveyards' soils, for example, shows what our 130 years' worth of improper harvesting have done to make our soils harder and impenetrable for the blessings of rain. The Old School would note that "the cows look thin because this ground just does not produce what it once did. Better de-stock and go to 15 acres per cow." This approach is entirely wrong.

The reason it is wrong is that grazing animals are critical to the carbon and water cycles in the prairies. Remember that the grasses and soils under them were built upon the SEVERE grazing effects of the bison. If we take away those animals, we take away the ability of the grasses' means to decompose properly through the animal and return its bounty back to the living soil. There were once millions of bison in the county. Now we have replaced them with a FRACTION of those animals' biomass. What is wrong with this scenario?

The answer is that we have changed the TIME of grazing and TIME of resting. It is really that simple. The bison moved by the teeth of the wolf (predation), fouling of the grasses with dung and urine (trampling), and hunger (lack of any grass to eat or good water to drink). They moved into an area, devastated it, moved on, and did not return until it was desirable again. This cycle continued for millenia. And it was Nature's Way. All we have done is changed the duration of the TIME of grazing and TIME of resting.

If we go out into a pasture right now, in the dormant season, we can see the difference in the grasses. We can easily distinguish the desirable "red prairies" from the "white prairies." Native peoples the world over have recognized the difference in the landscape. The red is the characteristic of the tall-grass species of the big and little bluestems, the indiangrass, and the switchgrass. The white is the characteristic of the buffalo grass, dead cheatgrass and annuals, the grama grasses, threeawns, silver bluestems and dropseeds. The white grasses are less palatable and yield fewer tons per acre. The under-utilized red grasses host a rank environment that is perfect for the growth of brush and cedar trees. That is why the cedars are taking over our land resource in certain places --- UNDER-utilization in places where the cows don't graze.

That is the good side of our future. We have the potential to put even MORE animals on the pasture if we can master a few simple rules of good management. We can do it responsibly, sustainably, and benefit the long-term health of the soil and the people that live upon it. There are 2 ways to do it. The first is to graze the grasses that are under-utilized. The second way is to actually grow more grass on the areas that are over-used.

It is easily possible to gain about 12% efficiency in the utilization and growth of our grasses. That equates to about ONE OUNCE of grass per square yard. Just think about the weight of an envelope with about 6 pages of paper in it. That is all we have to gain in an area about the twice the size of an opened newspaper. Here's the math:

4840 square yards per acre
divided by 16 ounces per pound
equals 302 pounds of grass per acre (County average is 2500 lbs/acre/year)
times about 600,000 acres of grass in Barber county
equals 181,200,000 pounds of grass
divided by 30 pounds per cow per day
equals 6,040,000 head-days
divided by 365 days per year
equals 16,548 cows
times $600 annual gross revenue per cow
equals $9,928,800 PER YEAR.

I would challenge anyone out there to bring into this county an industry or company that will have annual sales of TEN MILLION dollars. Can we achieve 20% efficiency? I believe we can. Just think what kind of jobs, standard of living, and tax revenue for the county that could provide.

And to think that it has been under our feet all along. The Sun, the rain, the grazers, and the MANAGEMENT.

-Nathan Lee, December 18, 2006


André Voisin (1903-1964), Productivité de l'herbe ("Productivity of Grass"), 1957.

Allan Savory, Holistic Resource Management, 1988.

Also see:

Times Are Good For the Feeder:
Robert Ruggles of Medicine Lodge Tells of Conditions

The Wichita Eagle, November 17, 1928.

Thanks to Nathan Lee contributing the above commentary to this web site!

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