Greetings from the 100th Meridian! I am overjoyed to inform you that I have now survived the first six weeks of the Rock Hills Ranch 2017 Summer Internship. “Survived” might sound like peculiarly strange diction to use while describing your dream internship. However, when Lyle found out I was attending military college in the fall, he promised me that he would make military school seem easy. Mornings begin with Lyle’s piercing wake-up whistle and holler at 6 a.m. sharp. At this time I chug 2 cups of black room-temp coffee and begin the morning PT session which consists of sit-ups, pull-ups, and a sub-25 minute 5k run. Occasionally, my routine PT session is accompanied by an additional hour-long workout designed and enforced by the ranch’s new one-month intern, Alexi Galber, who happens to be a former Israeli Defense Force soldier who trained to be a drill instructor. Lucky me, right? With this in mind, I can assure you that many mornings by the time I report to Luke for work at 8 a.m., survival is largely on my mind.
Things are not all bad here on the Northern Great Plains though. If you overlook the ongoing six-month drought, fences are being built, hay is being made, and cattle are being worked. There is no doubt that June has historically been, and continues to be, a busy time for the nation’s cattle producers. Here at Rock Hills Ranch, the already slam-packed month began with a visit from several donors, staffers, and scientists from the World Wildlife Fund. The group came on an overnight visit to the ranch to learn more about the role that ranchers play in the prairie ecosystem. There is a lot to consider and learn when talking about grassland conservation and Rock Hills Ranch is the perfect place to start.
One of the reasons that this internship stood out among the panoply of ranch internships I applied for was the value that Rock Hills Ranch placed on the prairie ecosystem. From day one of my time here, I have experienced so much about the role that ranchers play in wildlife conservation. In a nutshell, I have learned that the importance of grasses to both the prairie ecosystem and also to the environment as a whole.
Grasslands make up one of the world’s largest sources of carbon sequestration (the process of taking carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis). Sure, monoculture suburban horticulture and ag crops will also take carbon out of the atmosphere. However, if you consider the carbon cost of producing each of the stands (think fuel and fertilizer), the grasses have a much more beneficial impact on the atmospheric carbon levels because they require considerably less mechanical and chemical management. Grasses on prairie lands also contribute to water quality. Grass stands greatly contribute to soil health through increasing soil structure and infiltration (the ability of the soil to collect and hold water and nutrients) as well as reduce erosion. This reduces the loss of nutrients (mainly P & K) through runoff and leaching which ultimately prevents eutrophication in our water systems. Last, but not least, grasslands are home to bobolinks, meadowlarks, pheasants, and hundreds of other bird species that don’t nest in monoculture crops. Lyle says, “No cows, no grass, no birds.” If there is a reduction in the number of head of cattle, we lose prairie. That means we also lose air and water quality, as well as the wildlife that makes this region so special. The bottom line is that, contrary to popular belief, cows ARE good for the ecosystem of the Great Plains because they keep grasslands intact. So the next time you’re feeling environmentally conscious when you’re ordering food, think of the Northern Great Plains and get a burger.