Rangelands in western Nebraska
Mitchell Stephenson, Range and Forage Management Specialist
Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff
Rangelands are an important part of the Nebraska Panhandle that are often overlooked in terms of the value they provide to our area. Sixty-two percent of the land area in the Panhandle (about 5.5 million acres) is categorized as rangeland.
The Society for Range Management defines rangelands as “land supporting native vegetation that has the potential to be grazed and is managed as a natural ecosystem.”
Rangeland type varies from the north to the south and west to the east in the Panhandle. In the northwestern Panhandle, shortgrass prairie (or “hard grass”) is the dominant rangeland type. Common grass species in this area include blue grama and western wheatgrass. This rangeland type is intermixed throughout the Panhandle with forestlands, riparian areas along rivers, and Sandhill pockets.
The Sandhills region begins in the eastern Panhandle. This unique environment was once a blowing sand dune complex, but, as climate became favorable for plant growth, the dunes stabilized and are now a productive perennial grassland resource.
The Sandhills are dominated by a mixed-grass rangeland type with both shortgrasses, typical of dryer climates, and tallgrasses which are common in areas farther to the east that receive higher rainfall amounts. The Sandhills also have an abundant mixture of cool-season grasses (plants that mature early in the growing season) and warm-season grasses (plants that mature in the middle of the summer). Common grass species include needle and thread, prairie sandreed, and sand bluestem.
Rangelands provide valuable services to all residents of western Nebraska. The most common use of rangelands is for grazing livestock. Nebraska would not be the great beef-producing state it is without its productive rangelands. Rangelands in the Panhandle provide feed for nearly a quarter million cows, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA NASS). In addition to livestock production, rangelands also offer valuable habitat and forage for a variety of wildlife species including mule deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and several bird species.
Other ecosystem services provided by rangelands include carbon sequestration, soil erosion control, and recreation and aesthetics.
The goal of most range managers is to have healthy, thriving ecosystems, but there are often challenges in achieving this vision. Reclamation of abandoned dryland farm ground, invasion of both non-native and native weed species, and poor range condition from past use are all issues faced by people who manage rangelands.
Drought, hail, and wildfires also create challenges to rangeland managers by reducing the available forage and requiring yearly adjustments in the amount of livestock that can graze on a particular area.
Current research at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center is addressing some of these challenges to help rangeland managers. To stay up-to-date on past and current rangeland research at UNL visit our website at agronomy.unl.edu/range-pasture-forages or follow us on facebook @UNL Range & Forage.
This map of the Panhandle shows types of land cover, including Sandhills rangelands (blue), shortgrass range (tan), and cropland (green).