Kansas grazier finds ancient grass management techniques still work

by Allan Nation

AUBURN, Kansas: Wayne Copp said the two main passions in his life were wildlife and quality grass fed meat.

Located in the tall grass prairie region of eastern Kansas near Topeka, Copp has been trying to replicate on a relatively small 320-acre farm the grass and game management techniques of pre-historic Native Americans.

"Prehistoric Native Americans burned small patches of the prairie on a frequent basis to gather game," he said.

According to Copp's research, the bison would smell the smoke of the fire and come to lick the ashes for the minerals that were released. The Indians could then ambush the game from the nearby unburned taller grass.

Of course, these burns subsequently freshened the grass as the regrowth would be tender and young. This produced a natural "rotational grazing" system.

While fire ecology is definitely a part of modern-day Flint Hills ranching, it is now all concentrated in early spring. Fires are typically set only in March to remove last year's old grass residue.

Copp said these large area, seasonal burns create an entirely different ecology than what the small patch, year-round burning of the Native Americans created. For example, he said the side by side pattern of mature grass and young grass brings on an explosion of birds including quail and Prairie chickens.

"They say bird numbers are the best way to judge the health of an ecology," he said. "I think I've got more than anyone in the Flint Hills."

I don't know if he has the most but I can vouch for the fact that he does have a huge number of them.

To graze this patchwork quilt of native grass, Copp uses bison, Bighorn Alaskan sheep, meat goats and chickens. The high bird numbers have been very useful in lowering the number of flies on the bison.

The nearly hairless rump of the bison makes the animals very sensitive to biting flies and in the wild, bison would run great distances to get away from them. Of course, they can't do that on a 320-acre farm. From my observation, Copp's high bird numbers were apparently effective in keeping the flies at a minimum on his bison.

The bison are owned in partnership with Alyce Knoth a pioneer bison rancher from the Missouri Ozarks. The Alaskan sheep are hair sheep and have exceptionally flavorful meat but are as one would expect, not very heat tolerant.

Copp has about 60 Boer goats to remove brush, which he feels robs the land of moisture and productivity.

"Prior to the coming of the White man, the tall grass prairie was full of buffalo, elk, pronghorn antelope and deer. The buffalo was nearly 100 percent a grass eater, the elk was a fine grass and legume grazer like a sheep and the antelope and deer were browsers like goats.

"If you don't have a diversity of species grazing an area, the forage will become dominant in what the single species doesn't eat. There are no weeds in nature. There are only too few species grazing there."

All of the meat produced on the farm is direct marketed to health oriented consumers in nearby Topeka.

NATIVE GRASSES RESPOND WELL TO PATCH-BURN

Copp's predominant grass species are Big and Little Bluestem, Indiangrass and Switchgrass. These are all warm-season native grasses and are the grasses the bison prefer even in the winter when they are dormant.

"My bison refuse to eat cool-season grasses," he said.

He refers to a creeping invasion of fescue from the highway verge as "land cancer."

He likes to burn around 40 percent of his pasture each year. These burns are small in area and made throughout the growing season whenever the humidity drops enough to allow it.

"The only purchased inputs you need to practice my form of grazing management are a pair of tennis shoes and a match."

Copp gets a much better average daily gain with his patch-burn method than most Flint Hills graziers get with a spring-only burn. He suppositions this is because the new regrowth following a summer burn is not as heat lignified as full season grasses and is therefore more digestible.

The frequent burns produce a natural rotational grazing effect that is every bit as effective as a paddock system but which is much less stressful on the bison.

He wants every native grass plant to be able to grow to maturity once every three years to fully develop its root system.

"90 percent of a native warm-season grass is underground. This is what makes the native grass so drought tolerant."

He said the bison totally ignore the unburned areas during the green season and concentrate solely on the younger grasses in the unburned areas. This selective grazing allows the unburned plants to totally rest during the growing season and fully express their growth in both height and root growth.

These tall ungrazed grasses then provide the standing hay for the bison to graze during the winter season.

Native legumes such as Lead plants, Illinois bundleflower and Sensitive catclaw provides the winter grazing for the sheep and brush bark is the winter feed for the goats.

MEAT SALES

Copp said he has almost become a fanatic about meat quality and flavor.

He has found that if the hair and manure of a bison smell sweet the meat will also taste sweet.

He said the high calcium soils of the Flint Hills tended to naturally make a very sweet tasting meat. However, he said that cows, young bulls and heifers all have a different flavor.

Personally, he prefers the meat from a two-and-a-half-year-old heifer.

According to his historical research this was also the class of animal most sought by the Native American hunters as well.

He said heifers fatten easier and have a higher carcass yield percentage. He said his average carcass yield from a two-year-old heifer was 507 pounds.

He said the second best meat came from a two-year-old bull bison. He said a two-year-old bull would yield 55 to 57 percent. Since no bison are castrated, their meat tends to reflect this in its taste and it is not as tasty as heifer meat.

Most bison graziers harvest their bulls as yearlings. He said this meat was tender but not as flavorful and extremely lean. He said his yearling bulls had a carcass of around 500 pounds.

Old cows can have very tender and extremely flavorful meat but the meat has a coarse grain to it that some consumers find objectionable.

In his experience yellow-haired bison have sweeter tasting meat than black-haired bison. All of his meat is sold by the cut, and ground meat is his best selling item.

"I have two distinct markets for meat," he said. "I have a very lean meat market which are customers sent to me by local heart doctors still on the lean meat kick.

"And I have followers of Sally Fallon and Doctor Adkins who are not afraid of fat and actually seek it out."

To serve these two markets he has been harvesting the bulls as yearlings and the heifers as two-year-olds. All of the bison are field harvested with a rifle.

He said there is a Weston A. Price chapter in Topeka and they had been a wonderful customer for not only meat but also the bones for making broth. He sells his bison bones for $1.00 a pound.

"That's another $150 a head," he said.

He said the collapse in female bison prices had not affected him at all because he had never sold seedstock - only meat. He said the retail price of bison meat has not come down at all.

Copp said he would like to work as a consultant with Flint Hills ranchers who would like to try his patch-burn regime.

REAL RANGE CHICKENS

Wayne Copp said that chickens are not vegetarians and he makes sure his have access to either insects or meat scraps year around.

"Chickens can provide good fly control if you will let them."

He has one group of chickens bonded to his horses to keep the stable area fly free and another that free ranges with the bison.

In the winter when there are no insects he provides meat scraps from his bison meat business for them.

He uses a Salatin-style free-range eggmobile with no electric net fence. This allows the hens to range where they will in search of insects. He calls this a "real" range chicken operation. He uses White Rock chickens and only sells eggs to his customers.

"I don't like slaughtering chickens," he said.

The hens receive sprouted grains and all the insects they can catch. In the winter they are fed meat scraps from his grass fed beef business.

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