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How fast food and big beef are helping Highs Plains ranchers save dwindling native grasslands

Kelly Anthony checks on his cattle in his pasture. Behind him are rolling hills of grassland in the southern high plains, where he has worked at restoring some of his land.
Calen Moore
/
Kansas News Service
Kelly Anthony checks on his cattle in his pasture. Behind him are rolling hills of grassland in the southern high plains, where he has worked at restoring some of his land.

Seas of corn and wheat stretch out across the High Plains, but a huge portion of those fields used to be native grassland. To conserve what’s left, a new program will work with ranchers, and it’s backed by some of the biggest beef buyers like Burger King.

HASKELL COUNTY, Kansas – Kelly Anthony, a cattle rancher in southwest Kansas, drives through his pasture, blaring a siren he uses to get the attention of the herd. As he flicks it on and off, the cattle surround the truck.

Cattle ranching has been Anthony's way of life for 25 years. Cattle ranches fuel the beef industry and the western Kansas economy. People like him also own much of the remaining native grasslands that once covered 71 million acres of the southern High Plains.

Now, 80% of those native grasslands in Kansas are lost, and cattle ranchers like Anthony could be the key to saving what’s left. A new program backed by conservation groups and the beef industry hopes to work with ranchers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico to conserve and restore more land.

“I really think that ranchers as a whole are the best stewards of the land, because the capital requirement to be in the cattle business is so high, the biggest portion of that is land,” Anthony said.

The native grasslands lost out to profitable fields of corn and other crops, while also being crowded out by invasive species.

Anthony hops on his horse and rides in front of sloping hills to count his cattle. Just past the hills are acres of untouched native grasses vital for a variety of species, like pronghorn deer and grassland birds including the lesser prairie chicken.

Anthony rides his horse making sure he has the right number of cattle. He has raised cattle in these grasslands for 25 years.
Calen Moore
/
Kansas News Service
Anthony counts his cattle from his horse. He has raised cattle in these grasslands for 25 years.

Last year, The Nature Conservancy started the Southern High Plains Initiative, backed by big brands connected to beef like Burger King and Cargill, which each contributed $5 million. Ultimately, the program so far has $42 million invested across five states to preserve or restore nearly 30 million acres of intact grasslands.

The program is using market-based incentives, basically payments, to ranchers who will preserve grassland or convert crops back to grass. Agreements could last up to 15 years in some cases with annual payments of $45 per acre.

But success will mean convincing ranchers in Kansas and elsewhere to get on board. Some, like Anthony, are a little skeptical. Ranchers are often careful who they support and protective of their lands. Sometimes, conservation groups also come with negative connotations.

Matt Bain is the Southern High Plains Grassland project manager for The Nature Conservancy. He said overcoming that skepticism will be key to making this work.

“Part of this process is to identify the barriers and to quantify them in a way that really hasn't been done,” Bain said.

This map from The Nature Conservancy shows the scope of the Southern High Plains Grassland Initiative and what remains. Areas in light green show all of the original grasslands, and the dark green borders show the intact grasslands the program is focused on.
This map from The Nature Conservancy shows the scope of the Southern High Plains Grassland Initiative and what remains. Areas in light green show all of the original grasslands, and the dark green borders show the intact grasslands the program is focused on.

The southern high plains cover parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

Bain has a long history with these grasslands. He was a rancher in the area for 12 years before taking over this initiative.

He calls grasslands the most imperiled native ecosystem on Earth. Part of the reason is because they are often overlooked, but they provide a lot of benefits including clean air, carbon storage, habitats for prairie species and food supply.

Some environmentalists believe ranching on grassland with conservation in mind could produce beef with less of an environmental impact.

“Ranchers are the reason we still have grassland in a very basic sense,” Bain said.

Bain has won over some ranchers. Bob Winderlin, a former full-time rancher in Scott County, Kansas, is one of the people now participating in the program so his land will see potentially less impacts from drought and water loss. Grasslands help reduce water runoff and filter water into river basins. They also help keep soils cooler and keep more moisture in the ground.

He said conservation is key to preserving grasslands and the rural ranching lifestyle.

“I guess we're smart enough to realize that we got to conserve what we have or we end up with nothing,” Winderlin said.

Other ranchers in the program, like Mark Smith in Wallace County, Kansas, have been practicing conservation for generations. He said both his father and grandfather participated.

“I’ve got land we haven’t tilled in over 20 years. We want cooler temperatures in the soil. We need to retain that moisture when it snows,” Smith said.

Smith is a history buff. Even more than conserving the land, he wants to conserve what the land represents. Large parts of grassland in northwest Kansas have historical significance to the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes.

“It’s important to me that this grassland stays grassland, because there is a lot of history out here in this land,” Smith said.

Despite conservation efforts, there is still a negative connotation to cattle ranching from environmental advocates.

Beef has a large impact on the environment, but grazing on grass can help with that.
Calen Moore
/
Kansas News Service
Beef has a large impact on the environment, but grazing on grass can help with that.

The beef industry leaves a huge impact on the environment by consuming a lot of grain that is produced in ways that contribute to water loss and soil pollution. The cattle and process release a lot of greenhouse gasses.

That’s why some major beef purchasers like Burger King, with its 1,900 restaurants, are investing.

Cargill, Burger King and others said they’re taking part with the hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their beef supply.

Deborah Fleischer is president of Green Impact, a consulting firm that helps businesses with green initiatives. She said when large companies invest in green projects, they might also be prompted by benefits like improving their public image.

“I think it's beyond philanthropy for some of these bigger companies now and just part of their carbon reduction strategy,” Fleischer said.

Most of these companies have public goals of reducing carbon emissions by 2030 or sooner, and efforts like saving grasslands can help.

Whether it’s securing their beef supply or reducing carbon emissions, the investments from large companies can help conservation efforts.

Fleischer said beyond that, the companies also earn benefits like attracting younger employees.

“More and more employees, especially younger employees, are looking to work at companies that actually have a responsible ethic,” Fleischer said.

Calen Moore covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can email him at cmoore@hppr.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

This story is being distributed by Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.