Sarah Sortum

Rancher in Calamus River Basin


Alison M. Jones

NWNL Director and Photographer

Carolyn Bowman

NWNL Guest, Author and Traveler

Burwell, Nebraska - March 25, 2017


Praire Chickens
Ranch Management in The Sandhills
Sandhill Insects & Little Critters
Nebraska State Species

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Introductory Note

Switzer Ranch is part of the 12,000-acre Gracie Creek Landowners Association. The following partners helped to protect its grasslands:

    • World Wildlife Fund
    • The Nature Conservancy
    • Audubon Society
    • Nebraska Environmental Trust
    • Natural Resources Conservation
    • Platte River Basin Time-Lapse
    • Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival
    • National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc.
Sarah Sortum, at home in the Nebraska Sandhills

Sarah Sortum, a 4th-generation Switzer living on their Kincaid Act ranch, is well-versed in sustainability and species. She has also written a blog for NWNL titled, Protecting Nebraska Sandhills 

Praire Chickens

NWNL  Sarah, thank you for sharing your home the Northern Great Plains with us today.  It is wonderful to be here on one of the last large intact grasslands found on Earth.

SARAH SORTUM  I hope you both are enjoying your time on our ranch. You saw the prairie chickens early this morning on their lek. During the day, those males will usually come out here to rest. You can imagine they’ve used up a lot of calories during their morning courtship displays and, of course, need to feed.

Mating prairie chickens at dawn

When the hen is ready to build her nest, she also comes to a place like this. You might think she’d want a place with really thick grass so as to be camouflaged really well, and that’s sort of true.  But actually, she wants relatively short grass with clumps of dense vegetation in the middle. Often, instead of nesting on bottomland where we are now, she’ll go about halfway up a hill.

See these two hills? There’s kind of a peak there and a peak there.  We call this a swale. Many times they’ll go in that swale, because the vegetation is a little more dense in there. She likes to be elevated a bit so she can watch for predators – perhaps see a coyote coming from far away.

NWNL  How far away is she from her eggs when she’s in that swale?

SARAH SORTUM  She is right on them. You almost have to walk on top of them before flushing her away from her eggs. They’re really good about sticking on the nest, but they will do the hurt-wing thing.

Swales abound in the Nebraska Sandhills

NWNL  Like the killdeer?

SARAH SORTUM  Yes, exactly, they also will do that.  My dad and I were out on horseback a couple of years ago and came over the hill. We saw a coyote, but not the prairie chicken at first. Then we saw the prairie chicken do her hurt-wing act and draw that coyote maybe 30 feet away from her nesting area. The coyote would kind of get wise and circle back. Then she would fly right in front of him. That went on for probably 15 minutes before the coyote smelled us and went on. So, they’re good mamas.

We use the pasture that we’re in now for our horses that help us move cattle. Its vegetative structure is very important. We want it patchy: a patch of short grass, a patch of medium grass, and patches of tall grass. If you look on the ground, you see a thatch. It’s really important that we keep that thatch at a medium density, so chicks can remain hidden and protected from the elements. But we don’t want it so thick that the chicks can’t walk through it, because they can then become trapped and unable to get to food sources, or whatever they need.

In the summer especially, the chicks rely on dew for water. So, thinking about drought, dew has a big impact on our chicks’ success. If they don’t have dew, they won’t last very long. Since we rotate horses to different sections, this year there will be no nesting habitat in this patch, but next year it’ll be really, really good.

Windmills pump groundwater into tanks for livestock; grasses offer dew for prairie chickens.

NWNL  Do you hunt the chickens?

SARAH SORTUM  We don’t, but there is a hunting season in Nebraska. Hunters can take three a day. That applies to both prairie chickens and Sharp-tailed grouse.

Ranch Management in The Sandhills

SARAH SORTUM  The cedar trees here have become invasive, even though they are native.  There’s just more seed source and more trees than there ever has been historically, so they’ve really gotten ahead of us.  We can still kill trees that are about three feet tall or less with a hot fire, so we make sure when cattle are grazing that we leave enough fuel for the next spring to get a good hot fire to kill those trees. 

If they get too much taller, a hot fire is not really going to help, because the flame can’t reach that high. Basically, burning is much more economical in getting rid of invasive trees, and you get a lot of great side benefits. 

The interaction of fire and grazing has been on this landscape for a long time. Native Americans here set a lot of fires which would draw the bison in, because they want nice green, juicy grass. That made hunting bison a lot easier.  So, the way the grasses adapted over time was set by the cycles of fire, grazing, fire, grazing. 

Controlled burns, invasives and cattle are all part of prairie ranch management.

Our first fire mistake was that we let the burn area rest for a year without grazing, and so we didn’t really see our native species come back the way we wanted. Well, we were doing it wrong. Then we started to burn and graze it the same year. It seemed like turning the cows out was the wrong thing to do, since there’s just not very much vegetation out here anyway. But we burned and put the cows out, and then gave the area resting time, because that’s what the bison would do. They would graze it until it was gone and then move on.  When we grazed the burn area, the cattle really mowed down non-native species we weren’t so thrilled about. That eliminated competition to our native grasses, which then sprung up. Burning and grazing has really worked well. 

We also see that process helps the prairie chickens and Sharp-tailed grouse. The first couple of years of burning and grazing, we saw a lot of forbs — a nice word for wildflowers, weeds and herbaceous plants. That is good because 98% of the chicks’ diets are insects, and if you don’t have wildflowers to draw in bugs, the chicks won’t have any food to eat.

We just move somewhere different across the landscape every year to create that patchwork-quilt feeling. It’s funny, because a lot of times when out on a prairie, our human brains tell us conformity and balance are pretty. That’s what we like. So, when people first come out, sometimes they don’t like the patchy look, because it’s not as pretty as if all the grass was the same height. But I always compare the prairie to a working woman:  the true value of a woman is that when she works, she can do a lot of different things at one time. 

Sandhill Insects & Little Critters

SARAH SORTUM  Do you see that mound about 15 feet from the Jeep? Those are mounding ants. They gather small twigs and pieces of grass stem to make that mound. You can see a lot of times the fire will go right over it, as the ants just go into the ground. It might kill a few on the surface. But I’ve come out, even on the first day after burning, and if it’s a nice sunny day, that mound will be covered with ants starting to rebuild whatever was burned. They’ll just start again. And they do pretty well. 

Also, in the sandhills are six kinds of dung beetles, although the majority of them are two different kinds.  One kind goes on top of the cow pie, burrows down through it, and lays eggs right underneath so that when the larvae hatch, they have this wonderful food source right here. The other, more well-known kind takes a chunk and rolls it into a ball about the size of a quarter. They lay their eggs in that ball, so when the larvae hatches, the ball is their food source.  The great thing is dung beetles break down the wonderful nutritious parts of the manure.

Many studies have shown the impact of a good dung beetle population on soil content and makeup. They play a very important role in breaking down and recycling those nutrients, especially here in the sand. Remember, our soil is not rich topsoil as in other places – so cow poop is cool.

NWNL  Unless it’s fresh.

SARAH SORTUM  Unless it’s fresh, that’s right! Although, the funniest thing about fresh cow pies is a lot of times when I’m out riding on a hot summer day, I’ll see a box turtle that has gone right inside of a fresh, juicy cow pie and his little nose is all that’s sticking out. So cow pies offer wonderful protection.

NWNL  They are like a sauna.

SARAH SORTUM  Yeah. The cow patties are moist – with everything all wrapped into one package. Oh, there in the burned grass is a lucky sighting – it’s a 13-lined ground squirrel. We also have gophers that are maybe a little smaller than that ground squirrel, and prairie dogs that are bigger. Prairie dogs were exterminated in Nebraska, not because of their troublesome holes, but because in order to see their predators, they clip down grasses cattle need. A big “prairie dog town” can cover hundreds of acres. Today only 2% of original prairie dog numbers remain.

You’ve noticed the gophers’ tunnels; and over there you can see the holes of the Ord’s kangaroo rats, named so for their long tails. And luckily you have seen some of our larger mammals – the mule deer – and signs of porcupine on the hardwood trees. 

Wild rose fruits are eaten by prairie grouse, turkeys, et al, but not digested. Thus they'll sprout when dropped.

Sandhill Grasses

NWNL You have shown us wild rose hips that are edible, high in Vitamin C and medicinal.  What about the sandhill’s iconic grasses?

SARAH SORTUM  One of our main grasses is little bluestem, our Nebraska state grass. As our main bunch grass, it’s not only great food, but also great habitat for our birds. You can imagine; a prairie chicken or a Sharp-tailed grouse could get right in the middle of a nice bunch of that grass and nestle down. If there’s a blizzard, they get in there and roost overnight. It’s really, really good protection. So, like I say, little bluestem is good for anchoring the sand, for food, and good cover as well.

NWNL  Do you have big bluestem? 

SARAH SORTUM  We have some big bluestem, but not as much as in a tall-grass prairie. The big bluestem in the sandhills is mainly found in sub-irrigated meadows. We also have sand bluestem, which is very, very similar to big bluestem, but it’s adapted to our sand. Those names reflect what we find out here in the hills –  blue, big blue and sand blue.

Prairie sunsets are embellished by their wild grass fringes.

NWNL  Can you describe the differences in appearance between these grasses?

SARAH SORTUM  The sand bluestem doesn’t get quite as tall as the big bluestem, but it still can be quite tall, even 4-5 feet some years. One of the main differences that’s an easy, quick way to tell is that while it has a 3-pronged seed head like the big bluestem, the sand bluestem gets really fuzzy seed heads.

The little bluestem is not near as tall. It’s only 1-2 feet tall; and it grows in a definitely bunch, a bunch of grass. The little bluestem’s getting really popular for landscaping and ornamental uses, because it’s a hardy grass, easy to grow, and it turns into gorgeous colors in the fall. It’s really, really pretty.

NWNL  Certainly here, it seems to be more orange than anything else around.

SARAH SORTUM  In the fall, depending on moisture and other conditions, little bluestem can almost turn almost a reddish-burgundy, really pretty color. Then the new growth, especially on a wet year, has a blue tinge to it. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why it was called little bluestem, because it never looked blue. But then in a really wet year, I was riding my horse one day, and there were all these patches of blue. I muttered, “Duh, that’s why!”

If you look at the general landscape on this side of the Jeep, you’ll see subtle differences in the color of the vegetation. We burned this pasture last year, so the nutrients are different. Also, there’s not as much old growth where we burned, so it’s a bit brighter where we burned.

NWNL  Yes, some is more yellow and orange.

The oranges of the bluestem

Nebraska State Species

NWNL  Is the tall tree down in the valley a cottonwood?

SARAH SORTUM  Yes, that is our Nebraska state tree.

NWNL  Is the prairie chicken Nebraska’s state bird?

SARAH SORTUM  No, but it should be. And it neither are the flicker, wild turkey or pheasant which you’ve seen here, nor the great horned owl behind our cabin, the American wigeon or mallards that you’ve heard. It’s the western meadowlark, which you listened to this morning until a goshawk and some northern harriers scared it away.

Our state mammal isn’t very unique: it’s the white-tailed deer. And what do you think is our Nebraska state insect?

NWNL  The regal fritillary?  Or maybe the dung beetle! 

SARAH SORTUM  That would be nice, and again, it should be. But no, it’s the honeybee, which is not even native. But, hey, we like bees. Bees are good.

And here we are at Gracie Creek. Spring-fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, this water never freezes. There used to beaver dams along the creek until they were washed out with a flood. Meanwhile we are lucky to have Michael Forsberg documenting this creek for his Platte Basin Timelapse Project. Photos are taken once an hour. They compile a very useful database of surrounding activity and water flows.

NWNL  Sarah, Carolyn and I thank you very much for this educational “Sandhills Safari” – complete with dung beetles, just like the Great Plains of Africa! And now, here we are beside Gracie Creek and below your “pollinator garden” for attracting monarch butterflies. Tucked in out of the wind, we’d like to make a  toast with our Nebraska wine you included in this surprise picnic: “Here’s to your family for protecting this fascinating and productive landscape.”

Ah, and look at the two wood ducks also enjoying Gracie Creek!

A Creekside Picnic in Nebraska Sandhills

Posted by NWNL on October 21, 2019.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.