Nebraska’s Sandhills are one of the country’s most fragile ecosystems. The remnants of large wind-blown sand dunes, the rolling hills are covered in a broad assortment of perennial grasses. With roots stretching as deep as 13 feet, the grasses anchor the dunes in place, creating an enchanted land of wildlife, natural springs, and bird life. Underneath it all, the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest underground water repositories in the world, feeds surface lakes, ponds, and flowing streams. Centuries ago, the sandhills were home to massive herds of bison, but today, it’s mostly cattle filling the role of large ruminants who graze, trample, and fertilize the grasslands.
David Hutchinson and his family own one of the many ranches dotting the Sandhills. A member of the Panorama network almost since its beginning, Hutchinson, with his wife Sue, daughter Sarah Drenth, her husband Jared, and daughters Lexi and Stella, raises grass-fed and organic cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, along with chickens and even bees in a diverse ecosystem on 5,000 acres of organic pastures. For more than 40 years since the Hutchinsons bought the place, the grasslands on the ranch have never been irrigated, fertilized, or treated with any other chemicals. Hutchinson says it’s all about health – of the soil, the grasses, the water, the meat, and the people who live there.
“It’s our lifestyle. We believe in it,” says Hutchinson. “We’ve learned along the way to improve things. It’s been quite a long journey. But we knew that it was healthy for you and healthy for the environment. We have more wildlife here than most places just because of the grass and the organic part of it.”
Hutchinson is also a firm believer in the health benefits of grass-fed meat, with its conjugated linoleic acid, iron, Vitamin E, and other nutrients. In the past, he’s worked with Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston Price Foundation and best-selling author and journalist Jo Robinson to spread the word. But health is only part of it. “Not only is it healthy for you, but it tastes better, too,” says daughter Sarah Drenth. Hutchinson adds, “Our family motto is if it’s not grass-fed, it’s not gourmet.”
To keep the grasslands healthy and thriving, Hutchinson actively manages the herds. “We move them from one place to another every three to five days,” he says. “When you do that, it allows those roots to develop down to 13 feet.” With the high water table, the deep roots allow the plants to weather a lack of rain for days or weeks at a time. When moving the animals, he uses low stress management to keep them healthy. “When you take your time to do things, it always works out better for the animals—and for people, too.”
The family is happy to join Audubon’s Conservation Ranching Program. “The Audubon Society, they understand that you need that cycle of the hoofprint to break up the soil and keep the grass healthy, and then as the cattle eat the grass and produce manure, that fertilizes the soil. In other words, if you don’t have any cattle, you won’t have any wildlife,” says Hutchinson.
Drenth adds, “The birds are right there with our cattle and they move with them. They’re wild birds—we didn’t put them there.” The birds include pheasant, turkeys, eagles, and a wide variety of native songbirds. Because it’s on the Central Flyway, migratory birds like sandhill cranes and even whooping cranes sometimes make an appearance.
As much of an idyllic paradise as Hutchinson’s ranch appears, the Sandhills themselves are facing increasing pressure from outside interests. Crop farming that sucks the aquifer dry, creates polluting chemical run-off, and destroys the precarious surface of the soil has become more common with the advent of center pivot irrigation. But possibly the biggest threat currently is that of wind farms and power transmission lines.
“The utility company, they want to come in and ruin everything,” says Hutchinson. “If you take a big truck and come through the Sandhills, that footprint will be there for a hundred years. It’s very fragile, and they don’t understand that.” While the wind farm won’t be on his ranch, it will be close enough to cause concern, especially with the potential negative impact on the 17 artesian springs on the ranch. “We believe in the Sandhills,” he says, “so we’ve been fighting this. We want to keep the Sandhills pure for everybody.”
While keeping the Sandhills in their pristine state is critical, preserving the ranch is important, too. Drenth says she hopes they can keep it viable for her daughters. “The kids like it here, and they help out quite a bit.” With hard work and perseverance, the Hutchinsons stand a good chance of passing the ranch down through generations—cattle, bison, birds and all.