Description

The Alexander ranch covers roughly 7,000 acres of the Gyspsum Hills in Barber County, KS.  Held by the same family for over 100 years, the ranch has seen many changes.  Since his arrival in the 1980’s, Ted Alexander has made steady improvements to the land that have had far reaching impacts for the plants, wildlife, and watershed as a whole.  
 
 
Also known as the Red Hills, the Gypsum Hills comprise the largest remaining mixed grass contiguous prairie.  However, much of the area is covered with the invasive Eastern Red Cedar.  In 1984 when Ted moved out, he found an overgrazed, underutilized cedar forest with no water.  The North side was 60-70% covered in Eastern Red Cedar with some areas between 80-90% covered.  Of the 7,000 acres, roughly half was covered with cedar trees.  In the absence of regular fires which historically regulated the trees, red cedars have spread across rangelands, creating a very different environment for plants and animals.   NRCS estimated roughly 8 million acres had 50% of cedar canopy in 2002.  The situation at the Alexander Ranch was similar across the area.  
 
Nearly 30 years ago, Ted Alexander did the first prescribed burn on his ranch and kept burning consistently in the following years.  In 1985, he bought a tree saw and hired a local man to help with the eradication efforts.  After six months straight of sawing cedars, they had removed roughly 90% of all the live cedar on the ranch.  Clearing away the cedars allows the mixed grass prairie ecosystem to thrive; the land receives and retains more water.  
In addition to sawing the cedars, they were continually burning all the time.      
The repeated fires have reduced the canopy from being a tall, horizontal to being a small, vertical, I have more exposed areas to grow more grass.   It’s filling in.  Groundcover is another big issue in keeping moisture, especially since we’re in this drought.  It’s very important to have ground cover.
Ted recalls, "this was the biggest leap forward.”  
 
 
Using intensive grazing practices, the Alexanders manage to run as many as 500 head of calf/cow pairs and a 1,000 head of yearlings or as many as 3,000 yearlings and 250 calf/cow pairs.  Custom grazing gives the ranch flexibility to respond to the changing circumstances.  Ted explains, "Since the drought, we’re down to 275 cows for 180 days and 200 cows for 100 days.”
I ran the numbers [on custom grazing] in ‘88 and thought, "this is ideal!”  Yeah, I don’t have big income years.  But you know what?  Out of the 30 years I’ve been here, I have three years that I didn’t have a positive gross margin and that means a profit.
Custom grazing, intensive management, and responding to the needs and potential of the land according to ever-changing weather requires a good deal of planning.  A meticulous record-keeper, Ted’s planning is key to his successful operation.  With 72 paddocks, that’s a lot of figuring out where to go!
 
 
NRCS Rangeland Specialist, David Kraft, believes that Ted’s ability to plan and respond is key to his success.  
Where some people would see record keeping as a hindrance, Ted sees that as a vehicle that he needs to use to know how his ranch is responding to changing climatic conditions.  Those daily actions remove the guesswork.  He knows based upon what is happening, what the plant community is doing.  Where one might see that as an inconvenience he sees that as a necessity!  Read more in David Kraft’s guest blog here!
Ted’s grazing plan keeps the ranch on a steady course while the drought plan ensures that they maintain a balance in tougher times.  The flexibility built-into both the grazing plan and the drought plan is a huge asset.  
I don’t make great big money, because I don’t have a lot of asset to borrow money on.  I don’t have a lot of equity outside of the land.  I have flexibility.  I take in cows by the head, by the day.  I don’t rent land.  That’s why my drought plan works because I have so much flexibility.   
While intensive grazing practices take more planning and forethought, Ted offers simple advice:  "Put your cows together and close gates.  Put them in one herd.  Start measuring and managing.”

Water

The connections happening on the Alexander Ranch impact the whole ecosystem.  It doesn’t take much time with Ted to learn why cedar trees are so problematic – and how management of the invasive species impacts water and energy.  According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
One acre of cedar trees can rob as much as 55,000 gallons of water per year from surrounding grasslands and streams. Trees also produce a shading effect and, in the case of eastern red cedar, can smother the native grasses. Combined with negative effects on the water cycle, the amount of forage available to a livestock producer is greatly reduced. This, in turn, directly affects a producer’s bottom line as well as the local economy.  
http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/pfw/r6pfw15.htm
In addition to "robbing” water from grasslands and streams, Eastern Red Cedar canopies also intercept precipitation.  The impact of ERC on the water cycle really can’t be overstated, and Ted’s efforts to clear his 7,000 acres of the invasive species go far beyond his little patch of land.  
 
"I’m the caretaker of this whole watershed”  
While Ted’s planning requires serious attention to detail, he is also a big thinker, seeing his property as part of the larger whole.  During a visit to the ranch in the spring of 2012, Ted pointed out an area with several cedar trees:
Back behind us, any of those cedar trees could be taking 30-50 gallons of water a day.  When it doesn’t rain, that’s a lot of water that isn’t available for grass to grow. There’s a lot of ecological things that go on underneath cedar trees, the roots are shallow, which causes erosion.  You get rid of the cedars and heal the ground with grass, you keep more water on the property.  
In this part of Kansas we get 18-22 inches of rainfall into the profile. Into the groundwater, we get 4 inches of rain per acre.  Do you know how many gallons of water that is?  100,000 gallons.  100,000 gallons if the range is in good to excellent conditions.  You put down to the next level of range, to fair, you go down to 75,000 gallons.  If the range goes to poor you go down underneath 50,000 gallons real fast, and it could even go down to 30-40,000.  You introduce cedar trees into those different stages and you just cut each one of them in half.  That’s water that never gets into our groundwater profile to come out into the goods and services we deliver, water quantity and water quality.

Cedar tree eradication means more open space, better forage and more water on the land.  While some might have sat on their laurels and called that "good,” not Ted.  Switching to custom grazing and adopting intensive grazing practices also yield positive results on the ranch.  
Intensive grazing requires livestock to be moved frequently with long recovery periods in each pasture after grazing periods.  This allows the native grasses to grow back more vigorously, increasing the forage per acre and aids in the development of a thick layer of plant litter which impact soil water retention.
Getting the water where it needs to go
Intensive grazing require large sections to be broken down into smaller paddocks or cells.  The livestock spend limited time in each cell and are moved frequently to minimize the impact on the land.  Having water in the right place at the right time is extremely important.   
 
The Alexander Ranch has an extensive water pipeline system to supply the livestock watering centers.  This allows the acreage to be divided into more paddocks, improving the ability to move livestock more frequently.  This system, coupled with a solar pumping station that will be discussed more fully in the Energy section, allows the Alexander’s to get the water where it needs to go.  The 12 foot diameter (roughly 1,300 gallons) water tanks form a hub that serves as a center pivot, in a sense, for the grazing rotations.  Additionally, Ted’s son Brian came up with the great idea to bury the water tanks.  The buried tanks allow the cattle to drink in a way that is more natural to their body so it’s good for the cattle’s digestion.  But the buried tanks also mean that the soil around the tank does not wear down resulting in a tank on a hill.  Brian explained,
 
Setting the tank in the ground, and locking it in with the rock and the dirt like we have, the tank is never going to move.  It’s below grade.  When you put a tank on concrete or rock and put it on the surface, everything around is going to get beat down and you end up with your tank on a pedestal.  When you start with your tank low, it always stays low.  Even if they try to beat the ground down around it, it’s just going to beat that dirt down more and you’re never going to end up with a tank on a pedestal
If that doesn’t beat all, they paid close attention to the behavior of the cattle and designed the fencing system around each water tank to reduce loitering.  While many cows can drink from the tank, there is only enough room for one cow to drink and another to walk behind (ie. One cow length and a width) to get to an open space at the tank.  It is not a comfortable place to sit back and relax.  As Brian puts it, "my cows don’t stand around the tanks.  They go out and work for a living.”  It’s pure ingenuity at its finest.
 
Even with this extensive water system, they have plenty of backup in case of a failure.  The paddocks are designed so there is always a secondary water source if the primary one fails.  Brian explains, "If we have a failure in the system that’s going to take more than 48 hours to fix, we’re going to water.  We’re only a mile from water.  The ranch is set up with water systems with a primary use and secondary, or supplemental, water sources (pit ponds, creeks etc.)  Don’t put your eggs in one basket.  Have a Plan B.”
 
Responsible water use.
While Ted and Brian have worked hard to restore water sources and manage the ones they have,  Ted Alexander has also developed a nationally recognized drought plan.  This drought plan is used in making land management decisions and in determining stocking rates and grazing patterns.  The drought plan enabled him to maintain the health of the land during the current drought.  Ted recalls attending a Ranching for Profit workshop with Dwayne Rice which resulted in the drought plan:  
In January of 1997, we went to ranching for profit with David Pratt and one of the assignments was strategic planning.  One of the strategic plans was to create a drought plan, write your goal down goals, write a business plan.  In the business plan you had a strategic plan for drought.  I thought that’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.  But I had all the figures for a drought plan.  We’ve constantly tweaked on it.  Duane Rice with NRCS had the critical dates and I had all the moisture so it was only plugging everything in.  
    
Gee, when you only get 50 % of your rainfall, you probably ought to destock by 50%.  If you’ve got 20% less rainfall by this critical date, you maybe ought to start looking at the next critical date and thinking about what you’re going to do.  Seems pretty basic and pretty elementary to me.  

Now that we’re in the third year of a major drought, we’re going back and addressing it.  We’re getting into cumulative effects on reduction of forage.  That’s an interesting concept to me.  Because it’s only rained this much over three years you have a reduction every year.  The plant’s vigor just isn’t there.  
Extensive record keeping and data collection has occurred since the 1980’s.  Information collected includes pounds of forage per acre grown per year, livestock weight gain rates, and rainfall amounts.  Again, this enables the Alexander’s to make better stocking decisions and change the drought plan as needed.
It’s also having a grazing plan.  If you don’t have any kind of grazing plan, how much stock you’ve got and how much grass they’re using and how much forage is in the paddock, you don’t know anything. , again it’s management.  So you manage.  Drought plan and grazing plan …They’re integrated.
The drought plan has been applied twice.  In 2006, when Brian came back to the ranch in the middle of July, there hadn’t been enough rain and Ted decided to move all or the cows and calves off the land.   Ted laughed as he explained the situation. 
Brian had only been here for two weeks.  Can you imagine how crazy he thought I was moving all the stock off the ranch?  In August it started raining again.  You talk about leaps in state and transitions.  Where the land went [after destocking] was phenomenal…if I’d have kept grazing, I wouldn’t have made that leap up.  That’s one of the years where I did not have a profit.  But the ecosystem…the goods and services that I was delivering, water quality, air quality, succession of this ranch, quality of the rangeland…those benefits I never get paid for.
The drought plan is available on the National Drought Mitigation Site at :  
http://drought.unl.edu/ranchplan/WriteaPlan/SampleDroughtPlans/SouthCentralKansasAlexanderRanch.aspx
And available in pdf format for download here.

Energy

While Ted’s practices impact availability and quality of water sources, his management also impacts energy usage.  Reaping the benefits of the flexibility of renewable energy, decreasing fuel costs with more fuel efficient vehicles to wise use of human energy, Ted’s got a lot going on that saves energy.  
 
Harnessing the Sun
As mentioned in the Water section, the extensive water pipeline is powered by a solar pumping station.  Ted wanted to pump water to a holding tank but running an electric line was cost prohibitive.  He explained, "the power company wanted $18,000 to put the power down there.  Now it’s free.  All I’ve got to do is go turn it on.”  That’s a prime example of energy independence, to be sure.
 
Of the five watering systems on the ranch, two are pressure fed and three are powered by solar.  The solar systems are real powerhouses, pumping approximately 12 gallons a minute and 6,000 gallons of water per day.  The solar fed systems hold between 10,000-18,000 gallons of reserve water. One solar pump delivers water to a tank on top of a hill, affectionately referred to as "Bob,” that holds 10,000 gallons of water that feeds out to all the other tanks.  
 
The fences are powered with solar generators, as well.  
I have no electric fence that isn’t solar powered.  I’ve got energizers that power the electric fences and they travel with the cows.  The fences are only energized in the areas where the cows are in.  I don’t have to have the whole cell energized. That just seemed like a practical thing.  
You might think with all these paddocks that the only thing you would see on the Alexander ranch is fencing.  That’s not at all the case.  You can’t see the electric fences unless you really make an effort, have Ted point one out, or run into one by accident.  In yet another streak of ingenuity, they curve the fences to reduce erosion.  Ted jokes, "but the fences are straight between each post.”
 
The kicker about all of Ted’s innovations, is that they’re all so very logical.  For instance, simply switching from a diesel truck to a Gator or Kubota dramatically cuts fuel costs.  
We do almost everything managing cattle on a Kubota or a four wheeler.  We don’t use pickups anymore, just four wheelers and a Kubota.  They’re cheap to operate.  Instead of that pickup that gets maybe 10 or 12 miles a gallon, running the Kubota uses about a gallon of diesel fuel every 2.5-3 hours.  That’s huge.  
Human energy
 
Before Ted took the reins, it would take 14 cowboys, "hoopin’ and hollerin’” all day to round up 150 cows.  Always looking for a more efficient way to operate, Ted was excited to try out intensive grazing as a way to simplify the amount of human energy required.  He took 1300 acres and divided it into 8 paddocks and never looked back:
I ran a pipeline and water system and made it into 8.   I divided that from 8 into 18.  It went to 30 real fast.  I said, "Oh, wow!”  I could handle 800 head all by myself!  All I had to do was show up and open the gates, and they came and walked through and started grazing!  It works so well.  What makes this so energy efficient is that we can move that many cows in that short of time to a new paddock to graze.  
Within a pretty short time, Ted was running the ranch by himself with his trusty dog, Buck, helping out.  Together with his son Brian, they are now able to move 275 cows in less than an hour.  
When we put 250 head in that corral this summer, weaned the calves, and moved them across the road, just Brian and I, people were amazed.  People say our cows are so gentle handing now.  
Combining principles of low-stress stockmanship with intensive grazing results in calm cattle that are easy to manage.  Ted explains,
Cows have zones they don’t like to be approached in -  zones where they don’t want people to stand - because then they don’t know where you’re at.  It’s how you position yourself in relation to what the cow wants you to do.  It’s being able to read the cow and what the cow’s telling you.  Hoopin’ and hollerin’ doesn’t work with cows, their stress level goes way high, unlike us they stay stressed for a while, the more hoopin’ and hollerin’, the more they stay stressed.
 
When the cows first come [to the ranch], it’s interesting the first week.  It’s interesting, moving herds of 250 head, or 1500 head of yearlings, but after they’ve been moved a couple of times, they hear me coming.  You know what’s exciting?  They love me.  When you can go out and move several hundred head by yourself and they all walk by you within a close distance, they’re pretty at ease.


Progress

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The successes, as well as the setbacks, of the Alexander Ranch result from a different way of thinking.  Ted Alexander is not afraid to try new things and learn from his own mistakes.  Keeping track of those mistakes, as well as all the other details that impact his operation, is a primary factor in the continuous progress and improvements on his ranch.  His broad, wide-open thinking allows him to see the various different roles he plays in the larger community, from caretaker of the whole watershed to used-sunlight salesman, Ted’s excitement for learning and sharing knowledge is contagious and has had far-reaching impacts.  
 
Landscape sculptor
Ted takes a wide-angled view of the ranching operation, sculpting the landscape to increase the health and potential of the whole system.  Even after just a few minutes visiting with him about his practices, it’s pretty clear that he loves what he does.  
 
I make art.  I‘m in the process of turning sunlight into protein. It’s not the animal I’m after, it’s the concept, the process.  It’s an ever-evolving and honing.  I love the process. Figuring out the interaction between the birds and lizards and sagebrush and cattle can all exist and we can all exist together.  It’s kind of fun.

I have streams that are flowing and we’re in the worst drought since the 1950’s.  I have water flowing out of canyons that 30 years ago were dry.  I got rid of the cedar trees, I apply principles of grazing management, watch my stock rate, watch the rainfall, and adjust my stocking rate according to the rainfall.

Ecology Ted’s nomination focused on his ability to foster diversity on the land, "Since the 1980’s the family has worked to remove invasive red cedars and replanted cultivated land with native grasses and forbs.  This has increased the forage per acre without the application of fertilizer or additional water.  Native and restored prairie is characterized by a wide diversity of grass and forb species.  This diversity enables the prairie to survive varying weather conditions and reduces the need for many of the chemical inputs used in monocultures or low plant diversity settings.”  While his practices save water, save energy, improve profit, and improve the soil, there are so many additional benefits that not all can be covered here but fortunately, quite a few experts have chimed in to support this case study.  Ken Brunson of The Nature Conservancy’s blog covers the ways that the diversity of the Alexander ranch benefits many species that are on the Kansas Threatened and Endangered Species list, like the Lesser Prairie-chicken, the Red spotted Toad, Arkansas Darter, Long-nosed snake, and many others.  Ken explains,
"The efforts of Ted and Brian Alexander in managing and improving the rangeland on the Alexander Ranch have served to not only improve conditions for cattle production but also for nature in general.  The Alexander Ranch represents a proven stewardship model for a sound land ethic which has meant sustainability for not only the ranch but all the wildlife dependent on it."
Ranching for Profit. It’s not all fun and games, though, and much of Ted’s hard work looks more like an office job than life out on the range.  His tenacious attention to detail coupled with a keen business sense changes the gameplan.  Heavily influenced by Ranching for Profit workshops and Principles of Grazing Management, Ted is a no-nonsense businessman who is maximizing potential.
When I need to look at what I’m doing, I look at the overheads.  How can I generate more income, lower overheads, improve the gross margin or run more cattle.  Before this drought started, I was at 100% of stocking rate from when I took over the ranch in84.  I have calculated now with the amount of cows I grazed, if I hadn’t cleaned this ranch up and got rid of the cedar trees, I’d have only 150 cows year round.  Now I have 275 for 8 months and 220 head for 100 days.  Doesn’t matter what my stocking rate is, what matters is the demand of forage and… have I grown it?  
 
So, I keep records.  I keep track of rainfall, windspeeds, relative humidity, all of the time.  That’s what drives my grazing.  When I started, I had rain gauges all over the ranch that didn’t take me long to figure out that it wasn’t working because I couldn’t get to them.  That’s tells me how much moisture I’m getting.  I’ve figured out how many inches of rainfall produces how many pounds of grass.  It’s a simple calculation past that.  If you couldn’t measure, you can’t manage anything!  
Resilience.  The record keeping, planning, and details, details, details, may seem rigid, but the system has a lot of wiggle room.  The drought plan coupled with the grazing plan look to both the good times and the bad, managing for the extremes.  David Kraft, NRCS, explained "Ted wants the plant community to survive, persist and improve during the drought.  He is a producer who says, "I want to protect the plant community and do the right thing.”’  The practices at the Alexander Ranch have progress woven into the very fiber, looking towards the future, preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best.  This flexibility allows him to take into account the big picture and adjust accordingly.
Over the last several years, I made that leap from production to community.  It’s been an interesting journey because the goods and services that the ecosystem delivers, that I help deliver, is an intangible commodity.  For years I kept track of how many pounds of beef I grazed, how many pounds of beef I took off the place.  I have almost a thousand manure samples off of this ranch saying when did I have the highest quality crude protein and did I have enough for it, I have scads of those figures, but you know what I wasn’t getting paid much for it.  I made a good living.  But… I will never get credit for the water quality, water quantity, air quality, the succession of this ranch to my son, who is here working now,  or the economic benefits I delivered to this county because I have range in a high to excellent state.  
CommunityThe innovative approach to ranching by both Ted and his son, Brian, take into account the impacts of their actions on the plants and animals on their own ranch, the overall effects on the watershed and region, but their willingness to talk about their practices and openness to new ideas also impact the larger human community.  Greg Kramos of the Fish and Wildlife Service highlighted the benefits of this approach:
 
Off the ranch, Ted and Brian’s lead-by-example approach to life has proven to be a tremendous benefit to the local ranching community and across the state of Kansas.  The efforts of Brian and Ted and the Alexander Ranch go above-and-beyond most conservation-minded people’s efforts and are truly a success story.  This story can be considered a model for ranches wishing to manage a profitable ranching business while maintaining a strong environmental ethic.  
Ted is quick to credit the many partners who have helped him over the years and many of these same people are eager to explain the ways Ted has helped them.  The list of partners is extensive:  US Fish and Wildlife Partner Program, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition, Ranch Management Consultants (Ranching for Profit), Natural Resource Conservation Service EQUP, Kansas Dept of Wildlife, Fish and Tourism, Partners for Conservation, the Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Barber County Conservation District and the Watershed Institute, and many more.  
What sets Ted apart as a planner and mentor is that he’s not afraid of sharing with others.  He enjoys taking people alongside him.  The number of different people Ted has worked with, or is willing to allow access to his ranch, has minimized barriers to different mindsets of management application.  When you do that you find there’s a whole lot more common ground than there is difference.”  David Kraft
Succession of the ranch.  The one thing many people are uncomfortable planning for is the inevitable fact that one day we will no longer be active participants in the world.  Due to the asset-rich/cash-poor nature of large-scale ranching, oftentimes ranches are divided up when the owner passes.  Many of the ranches in the Red Hills have been broken up into pieces and sold off.  This will not happen to the Alexander Ranch, thanks to Ted’s long-range vision and penchant for planning.  Three years before Brian came back to the ranch, Ted wrote a strategic plan to bring him into the operation.  When he came, Ted recalls, "It was difficult for me to give up some, but I had written this out so I had an idea of where I wanted to go.  Brian and I worked things out so easily because I had an inclination of what was coming”  Ted’s eye for stewardship extends beyond his lifetime realizing that his actions will have an impact far into the future but also being aware that Brian will take things in new directions, as well.  Brian explained, "I’m going to take my dad’s work and continue it.  Most other people do it this way because dad did it this way and never change anything.”  Ted chimed in,
And I’m not handing him a sheet saying, ‘this is the way it needs to be done.’ You think about a lot of fathers and sons and how sons would be following in their dad’s footsteps.  Brian’s not following in my footsteps.  He’s got his own footsteps but he’s sure appreciative of what I’ve done here, and continue to do   and we both learn together.  That’s exciting!
If at first you don’t succeed, pay better attention to the details.  A visit with Ted Alexander results in lots of laughter and a good deal of wisdom, humbly related.  Like any true innovator, Ted is not afraid to fail and is comfortable laughing at his mishaps, but he is always looking for new things to try and ways to improve upon existing practices.  Being the one of the first to implement any new technology can result in many unexpected hangups, but Ted sees opportunities for learning.  He told a story from the early days of electric fencing which illustrates this point well.
One time, I had this high tensile electric fence.  I spent quite a lot of time putting it up and it broke within the first time I grazed it.  I had these giant slinkies because high tensile wire coils back up.  

I’ve had wrecks happen.  But I’ve always gone back and analyzed them.  You know who it always comes back to that was the instigator of the wreck?  Me?  Because there was something I didn’t do professionally enough or I didn’t take care of details enough…details.  The details.  

I’ve done a lot of things that didn’t work.  I’ve done a lot of things that did work.  You go, "what went well?  What could have gone better?  Well, if you did that, maybe it could have gone better!

I’m still learning.  That’s what keeps life exciting for me!  Today is a new day and you can learn something.