University helps neighboring ranchers oust redcedars

by Ronica Stromberg

Kyle Martens
Kyle Martens (on right) has overseen a project helping 11 landowners near the university’s Barta Brothers Ranch clear eastern redcedars from their land this past year.
May 1, 2024

Lincoln, Neb. —Over the past year, a group of Sandhills ranchers facing invasive redcedars have heard a welcome word from the university: “Timber!”

The University of Nebraska—Lincoln has helped 11 ranchers within 30 miles of the university’s Barta Brothers Ranch near Rose, Nebraska, remove redcedars from their land.

The project, funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust and operated through the university, supported ranchers with up to $10,000 in funds to either mechanically remove or burn redcedars and allow the university to track results.

Kyle Martens, a program coordinator with the Center for Resilience in Agricultural Working Landscapes, has overseen the project. Results are still coming in, but he said one thing is clear.

“When you remove big cedar trees that have been there in the 10- to 20-year range, it's night-and-day difference,” he said. “You wouldn't even recognize the pasture.”

Each large tree can produce tens of thousands of seeds, he said, so even when the tree is gone, seeds remain in the soil.

Redcedars have already proven they can grow in Sandhills soil where other trees can’t. Their ability to survive in sandy soils is why governmental agencies promoted them as windbreaks and shelter belts after the Dust Bowl, Martens said.

“Now, all these years later, because we were operating on the fact that you couldn't get trees to grow out there, it somewhat flipped that paradigm on its head where trees like cedar can and will grow and, if not controlled, will go out of control,” he said.

The redcedars outcompete grass and, unchecked, diminish grazing lands, wildlife habitat and aquifer waters and lead to a slew of other problems.

Ranchers spied the encroachment problem decades ago, but it’s newer to the university and research circles, Martens said.

“Early on in the nineties, landowners and land managers were sounding the alarm in South Texas and Oklahoma that these trees were moving out into grazing lands, uninterrupted,” he said. “I would say only now, through remote sensing and some of [Nebraska professor] Daniel Uden's work, have we really been able to zoom out and see the big picture, the forest for the trees, if you will.”

Ranchers have tried to kick stray cedar survivors off their land for years and have found it a struggle.

Sarah Sortum, a fourth-generation rancher who participated in the cedar project with her brother, Adam Switzer, and their parents, Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer, said the family has tried to manage encroachment with prescribed burns for 12 years and mechanical removal for 15 years but the trees keep coming.

“Every year the intensity ramps up, a seemingly out-of-control cycle of more seed equals more trees that are outpacing management measures,” she said.

The trees have become one of the main economic and environmental challenges for their ranch, she said.

“When I see volunteer cedars in our range pastures, I view them as standing debt,” she said.

Sortum and her family were the only project participants to use fire to remove the cedars.

Martens met with all project participants three times and discussed mechanical removal and prescribed burns and contractors and equipment for both options. He relayed the university’s latest research findings from the collaborative adaptive management project at Barta Brothers Ranch, which uses prescribed burns and rotational grazing.

Although findings are preliminary, Barta researchers have not seen increased erosion or loss of overall plant biomass resulting from patch-burn grazing, Martens said, but they have seen higher weight gains in cattle grazing land in the system.

“The fact that you can do a spring burn, you can turn your animals out pretty quickly, you can have them gain heavily in that first part of the season, it doesn't affect the overall production of plant biomass on the landscape, it's just anecdotal things like that that I share that are pretty interesting,” he said.

In turn, ranchers have told him what they have seen on the land with grazing strategies and managing the land through problems like wind, drought, rain swells and redcedar spread.

“Hearing some of the stories of how they accomplish that, it's intense,” he said. “It's impressive, and I don't know how they have done that for, often, generations, but you get a newfound respect for what these folks do.”

Sortum said it costs a lot to remove redcedars mechanically and, although prescribed burns may cost less, ranchers can face financial hardships if they need to defer cattle grazing in an area before or after a burn.

“This is where the cost share really helped us out, taking the financial risk and stress out of the equation so we could focus on getting this area cleared of cedar,” she said.

For future research, she said she was curious whether redcedars could be used as a resource for other products such as essential oils. Historically, some tribes used various parts of the trees, like their berries or bark, for medicines or foods like tea.

Martens said the Nebraska Forest Service tried to figure out a way to make sustainable products from the trees but most of the trees grew too shrubby. Some ranchers have salvaged straight sections of the trees to make quarter posts and fence posts.

Going forward, funding for the cedar project will end in June 2024, and then the 5,300 acres enrolled will be monitored with remote sensing and on-the-ground research.

Daniel Uden, a professor in agronomy and natural resources, received a McIntire-Stennis grant to support follow-up research on redcedar management at Barta Brothers Ranch over the next five years.

Martens said he hopes monitoring will give them a good look at what’s happening on the land over time and help determine the cost-effectiveness of treatments.

“We want to keep grass in grass, but we can't spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to do that,” he said. “We have to find the most cost-effective manner.”

He said he hopes the project will reestablish Barta Brothers Ranch as a “pivotal point” for the Eastern Sandhills to test landowner concerns and different management methods.

“Hopefully, we can continue to partner with our neighbors for years to come and actually put research on the ground that benefits the producers, their families, and the Sandhills at large.”