Barta Brothers Ranch


The Barta Brothers Ranch is located in the northeastern Sandhills in Brown and Rock counties (Figure 1). On June 13, 1992, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents authorized University of Nebraska Administration to enter into an agreement with James Barta and Clifford Barta, as Donors, and the University of Nebraska Foundation. Based on the agreement, the Barta Brothers Ranch is to be used by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for research and demonstration programs in the integration of range management (including grazing and livestock production), prairie forestry, wildlife management, and conservation. Educational programs also were emphasized with a focus on on-site visits by ranchers, agency personnel, and high school and college students. The ranch is comprised of the Home Place (3,428 acres) on the Brown and Rock county line and the Edwards Place (1,728 acres) located 5 miles west of the headquarters at the Home Place (Figure 2). The focus of research and education programs has been grazing management, range management and ecology, and range livestock production since the initiation of programs in 1999. In preparation of the ranch for a research-oriented facility, several miles of fence and livestock water locations were added in 1998. The Center for Grassland Studies and the Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes collaborate with the Eastern Nebraska Research, Extension and Education Center in administering programs at the Barta Brothers Ranch.

Natural Resources

The Barta Brothers Ranch rangeland is representative of the topography and vegetation of the eastern Sandhills (Figure 3). The dominant uplands (95% of the ranch) are characterized by grass-covered dunes running west-by-northwest to east-by-southeast with slopes of 5 to 15%. Topography of the general landscape consists of 34% north-facing slopes, 36% south-facing slopes, 15% dune tops, and 15% interdunes, with dune heights up to 120 feet. Uplands are predominantly classified as sands ecological sites with scattered sands and choppy sands sites. Soils are fine Valentine sands. The vegetation cover is a diverse mixture of grasses, grass-like plants, forbs, shrubs, and cacti. The annual aboveground plant production is predominantly warm-season grasses (40%) and cool-season grasses (including sedges; 30%), although forbs (16%) and shrubs (14%) are common. The initial inventory of upland vegetation, frequency of occurrence by plant species, was conducted in 1998 (Schacht et al. 2000). A total of 89 plant species were encountered and the most commonly occurring species were western ragweed (Ambrosia Psilostachya) and sedges (Carex spp.) although the perennial native grasses were prevalent, including little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium), prairie sandreed (Calamovilfa longifolia), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and needlegrasses (Hesperostipa spp.) Aboveground plant production of upland vegetation has also been estimated annually by clipping since 1999. Average annual aboveground plant production is 1,850 lbs/acre.

The 158 acres of subirrigated meadow is found primarily in the southcentral part of the Home Place at the headwaters of Skull Creek (Figure 4). The vegetation cover is dominated by perennial cool-season grasses, including quackgrass (Elymus repens), timothy (Phleum pratense), and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), although sedges, forbs, and warm-season grasses are common. Average annual aboveground plant production is 4,500 lbs/acre. The meadow has been hayed annually in July/August except for 2010 through 2017 when it was grazed as part of a grazing systems study.

Windbreaks of mature eastern redcedar are found on much of the boundary of the main property. Wooded areas of eastern redcedar, cottonwood, and walnut are also scattered across the property.


The ranch headquarters is located in the southcentral portion of the Home Place and the buildings include the dormitory (Figure 5), the manager’s house, a lab and storage building, and the machine shed. The dormitory, completed in 2005, provides housing for students and scientists, the manager’s office, and meeting space. The manager’s house was purchased from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was moved from the neighboring Seier National Wildlife Refuge, and put in place near the dormitory in 2021. The lab and storage building, completed in 2009, has a lab for soil and plant sample preparation and includes cabinet space, counters, sinks, forced-air drying ovens, and refrigerators/freezers. Storage space for research supplies and equipment is also available in the building. The machine shed is a large building which houses the ranch’s equipment, vehicles, tools, and supplies. A set of corrals are adjacent to the machine shed. A Mesonet weather station is located in the southwest corner of the Home Place.

The grazing lands on the Home Place were divided into 24 pastures in 1998 (Figure 6). Average pasture size is about 140 acres. Water tanks (mostly 30-foot bottomless tanks) are near the center of each pasture and all pastures have tanks on a water pipeline except for two pastures which have windmills. The Edwards Place has 9 upland pastures of around 200 acres each (Figure 7). Each pasture has one or two water tanks on a pipeline.

Grazing Management

Prior to 1999, all upland pastures were continuously stocked with cow-calf pairs during a 5-month grazing season (late May to late October). From 1999 through 2008, most pastures were rotationally grazed (e.g., 4-pasture deferred rotation and 8-pasture short duration grazing) from mid-May to mid-October. All pastures since 2009 have been in a 4- or 5-pasture deferred rotation during the 5-month grazing season. Since 1999, pastures have been predominantly grazed by cow-calf pairs although some pastures have been occasionally stocked with yearling cattle. Stocking rates have averaged 0.80 AUM/acre. The Barta Brothers Ranch owns no cattle. Grazing rights are leased to a local rancher.


Planning and coordination of research and educational activities at the Barta Brothers Ranch are done by an executive planning committee comprised of the Directors of the Eastern Nebraska Research, Extension, and Education Center, the Center for Grassland Studies, the Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes, and the School of Natural Resources and the Heads of the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture and the Department of Animal Science. In addition, an advisory committee comprised of local ranchers has been instrumental in guiding development of research and outreach programs, including the BBR Field Day held in June of every other year (Figure 8). In 2020, the advisory committee was restructured and represents a broader range of stakeholders, including ranchers, federal and state government agencies (e.g., Natural Resources Conservation Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission), and non-government organizations (e.g., Sandhills Task Force and The Nature Conservancy). A ranch manager directs day-to-day operations.


Research was initiated in 1999 with an 8-year grazing systems study as recommended by the rancher advisory committee. Since then, research has been conducted by teams of scientists, extension educators, research technologists, and graduate students from the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, Department of Animal Science, School of Natural Resources, Department of Agricultural Economics, the West Central Research, Extension and Education Center, and the Panhandle Research, Extension and Education Center. Research topics have included grazing management, grazing livestock production, site and diet selection of grazing cattle, rangeland ecology, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon and nitrogen dynamics, nutrient cycling, dung beetle ecology, rangeland monitoring, long-term aboveground plant production, vegetation cover response to disturbances, and greater prairie-chicken habitat. Projects have been funded by six relatively large external grants, numerous internal grants, ranch revenues, and the Barta Brothers Ranch endowment. Research has resulted in a long list of significant research publications, theses and dissertations, teaching tools, extension publications, and extension activities. Impacts have been significant especially in the area of grazing management on private lands.

Collaborative Adaptive Management Research

A collaborative adaptive management (CAM) research project has been initiated in 2021. The overall goal of this project is to use a CAM approach on private landscapes to develop and refine a novel framework in which managers can explicitly assess ecosystem service tradeoffs and synergies on their properties across time and space to guide their decision-making process relative to economic and environmental change and sustainability. Unlike conventional models of conducting applied research, CAM embraces the flexibility of managers in learning about responses and tradeoffs and adjusting management accordingly. Although ranchers are the principal users of grasslands, they rely heavily on information from university extension programs, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Federal agencies, primarily the Natural Resources Conservation Service, influence the management of private rangelands through conservation incentive programs. NGOs focus on the complementarity of suites of ecosystem services and demonstrate and promote alternative practices. Therefore, we are integrating these groups within the CAM project. Ultimately, the long-term goals of this work are to 1) establish core CAM public properties along with nearby privately held ranches as demonstration of successful and exemplary stakeholder-driven experimental grasslands where learning occurs and high-risk experiments are possible; 2) provide ranchers with decision-making tools for assessing complex social, ecological, and economic tradeoffs to increase the sustainability of rangelands; and 3) spread practices of CAM across rangelands in North America and beyond.