January 25, 2018
By Gayle Smith
Early on, the Mathewson family realized if they take care of the grass on their family ranch, it will take care of them. Since then, the family has done their part to manage the rangeland, and rehabilitate and restore the land on the old homesteads they have purchased since.
Rodney and Arlene Mathewson settled on a small place near Potter, Neb., around 1946, where they started a cattle and farming operation. "They were both from farm families, and their determination and foresight raised three kids and put them through college. It laid a firm foundation for the family business," Beau Mathewson says of his grandparents.
The second generation of Mathewsons to help manage the ranch is Randy and Gina, Beau's parents. The ranch was incorporated in 1976 into RGM Inc., after Randy returned home from college. "He is really like no other rancher I know because he is tenacious, innovative, serious, and a perfectionist," Mathewson says of his father. "He has worked hard to build an efficient, sustainable, and environmentally sound business. It is a business that could only be built with determination and hard work."
During the 1980s and 90s, the family was able to purchase several large pieces of land, some of which were old homesteads. Many of the pieces were overgrazed and poorly managed, needing years of rest and rehabilitation, new fencing and water sources. Most of the grasses were cool season forages.
The condition of the land didn't deter the family, who looked at the purchases as an opportunity to implement a rotational grazing program while improving the rangeland. With help from the NRCS and a local construction company, they installed new pipelines, water sources and tanks, built new fence, and cross-fenced existing pastures.
Some pieces they purchased also had some irrigated and dryland farm ground. “We were able to put the marginal farm ground into the CRP program and re-establish the native grasses,” he explains. “We plant it to a native grass mixture recommended by the NRCS, with plant diversity in mind. At the end of the program, we put a fence around it, add some water sources, and graze it. Without the CRP and other conservation programs, it wouldn’t be viable, but I am very proud that we have been able to do it. Ecologically speaking, it is a lot better to have it in native grass, than in marginal farmground,” he says.
Another important strategy was to allow the overworked pastures some rest. Mathewson explains: "When I came back into the operation after graduating from the University of Wyoming, I took the Ranch Practicum. One of the things I learned in the course was from Pat Reece, who said, 'Never graze the same pasture at the same time of year, two years in a row.'
“I can't emphasize enough how important a rotational grazing system is to the health of the plant community. By implementing that system, we have ensured our land will stay productive and viable for decades to come. We have more AUMs per acre because of the way we have grazed the last 20 years,” he continues. “The plant communities are in better shape, creating more diversity and productivity,” he notes.
By improving the range, the cattle have not only benefited, but other creatures as well. "It has created habitat for all inhabitants of the ecosystem from microorganisms, to insects and birds, to cattle, wildlife, and large ungulates," Mathewson says. “If we can mimic the way Mother Nature works in grazing cycles, and do that in an economically viable way, it will benefit the whole ecological system,” he adds.
Most of the pastures are between 500-640 acres, with some being larger because of the rugged topography in the area. At first, they established a short season rotation with plenty of rest. "By doing that, we were able to increase the cool season grasses in number and productivity," Mathewson explains.
"We also started to see more plant diversity. Over time, the result was healthier, stronger and more productive plants. They were better able to develop, and had longer root systems that could better withstand grazing and drought," he explains.
"We have been able to increase our stocking rate 30% while using less forage. We graze each pasture for no more than 30 days, and let it rest for at least 16 months. If we graze a pasture in May, we won’t graze it again until at least September of the next year," he says.
Rotational grazing is not possible without many water sources. The family has developed several good water wells over the years, replacing windmill-fed tanks with submersible and pipeline water sources feeding strategically-placed tanks.
They have constructed 25-foot bottomless tanks in their pastures that can provide water for 20% of the 300 animals in any one pasture at any given time. “We don’t want anything to be more than a half mile from water. If we have a section, we usually try to put two tanks in. In pastures with one tank, we have the tank in the center, and have installed pipelines so we can put water where we want it, instead of where it is,” he explains. “Outside of fencing, where you put your tanks and water sources is the biggest driver in grazing utilization,” he explains.
By adding new water sources, the family is better able to achieve their management goals. “It takes a lot of time to put in tanks and pipeline, but once you have it done, it pays dividends,” he says. “It allows you to stock livestock the way it needs to be stocked, and it keeps your pastures in better condition.”
The main livestock wells also have Valley Trackers attached to them that monitors the pressure and whether or not the well has power. “We can set parameters, and if there is a problem with the well, it will send my dad and I an email or text message. We can look at it anytime,” he explains.
They also monitor range conditions using a variety of technology. “We use a drone to visualize pasture utilization,” Mathewson explains. “Drone imagery keeps us objective, and it has proven to be a valuable asset. Our objective is to use between 33-40% of the available herbage in each pasture. If it's dry, we move through pastures more quickly, and allow for longer rest periods,” he adds.
Smith is a freelance writer from Potter, Neb.
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