Fear Ranch Co. of Sutherland, Nebraska
The Fear Ranch Co. is a good example of how commitment to land stewardship contributes to the stability and longevity of a ranch. Landan and Larren Fear have the privilege of being the sixth generation to live on the Fear Ranch. Their dad, Larry, is currently taking care of the land and cattle on the cow-calf-yearling operation, located about halfway between Sutherland and Wallace, Hershey, and Dickens. Bob Fear, Larry’s father, recently moved to town after his long career managing the place. The ranch currently consists of 16,700 owned and leased contiguous acres, which has been added to mostly a section or two at a time. At one time, both of Larry’s paternal great-great grandparents lived on what has now been acquired by the ranch.
Looking for ways to grow more grass has been a goal of the family for many years. Some attempts to do this in the name of conservation have been met with less than spectacular success, but valuable lessons were learned along the way. After World War 1 and again after the drought of the 1930’s, planting grass in newly acquired land did not work out well. It was later determined that the grass seed was not well adapted to this area. However, the Fear Ranch did experience success with grass plantings in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Other priorities in those earlier years were fencing blowouts, mulching sandy spots, range interseedings, mowing only every other year, cross fencing, and adding more water sources. Back then, the Fear’s also practiced alternating pasture usage, where a pasture was used as summer pasture and then the next year only as winter pasture. Allowing the pasture a complete growing season of rest provided winter forage and boosted the vigor of the grass for the following years production. For a time, the Fear’s experimented with a high density, short duration grazing system; though now a more conservative rotational grazing system is in place. When center pivots came to the south hills in the 1970’s, the Fear’s rented an adjoining 2,800 acres of cornstalks for winter grazing. With the guidance of the University of Nebraska Extension Service, they added a 280 acre pivot of their own in 1973, when they raised alfalfa and cool season grass for hay and grazing. This has allowed the Fear Ranch to generally avoid buying outside protein, utilizing their home raised grass and alfalfa.
The current grazing program involves moving livestock through the pastures twice during the growing season. The first time through is for a short period in the spring with cool season grasses, and then again later in the season. Careful planning assures the livestock are not in the same pasture at the same time in consecutive years, a practice that maintains good plant diversity and vigor. Certain pastures acquired by the family have seen a dramatic improvement in range condition within just a few years of their management practices. A “photo plot” approach is currently being used to monitor the changes in the plant community as a result of the the grassland management. The Fear’s expect their present grazing scheme will continue to go through changes in the future, just as it has in the past.
Some of the more recent ranch improvements include installation of seven different pipelines, from one mile to more than six miles in length, so that every pasture has a dependable source of water for good grazing distribution. Cross fencing has also been a priority for many years. The largest pastures are one section in size, with many being reduced to a half section. As a testimony to the stability of the ranch, only once in the last 65 years has there been any outside females added to the cow herd. This trait carries through to the feedlot, where the same family has fed them for the past 31 years. By now, the cows and weaned calves have adapted to the Fear’s philosophy that the cattle will do most of the work. Their livestock often graze at least 11 months out of the year.
Over the years, the Fear’s initiated many of the range improvement practices that have been implemented. However, they have also utilized several programs for cost-share and valuable technical assistance through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Twin Platte Natural Resources District. These include the former Agricultural Conservation Program and Great Plains Program, as well as the current Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Program (NSWCP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which are in place to assist producers in carrying out important conservation practices on private land.
The Fear’s have recognized that the bottom line in ranching is keeping the operation economically viable. They are always looking for ways to improve the ranch and the lives of family members who depend on the property. Though economics is the primary reason for implementing the conservation practices, they have also achieved other benefits. For example, they have noticed more wildlife species on the ranch, including grouse, prairie chicken, turkey, and deer. Some of this can be attributed to the livestock windbreaks they have planted over the years, many with the benefit of a drip system.
A 1977 front page article and picture in the New York Times covering how the ranch was coping with drought brought interest from several foreign visitors, and prompted a write up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Through the years, other groups have been welcomed to the ranch to gain knowledge from what the Fear’s have learned. The essence of their experience is to keep the natural resources healthy and productive for current and future generations. Applying this conservation ethic to their daily ranch decisions has served the Fear Ranch well over many decades, and is the reason why they are the 2001 Twin Platte Natural Resources District Conservation Award winner.