Ranch Ecology & Sustainable Management

On a ranch– the cows, the grass they eat, and the soil that grows the grass they eat– should be viewed as a whole to be sustainable.

Ecology of the Kerr Center’s Stewardship Ranch: Plants and Wildlife and How We Manage in Concert with Nature

The Stewardship Ranch is located in the Arkansas Valley eco-region.  This eco-region runs from east central Oklahoma to central Arkansas.

The broad Arkansas River Valley forms a break between the Ozark Highlands to the north and the Ouachita Mountains to the south.

The Stewardship Ranch is located just north of the Ouachita Mountains. The Crosstimbers eco-region forms the western border.


Climate & Topography

Annual precipitation in this eco-region averages about 44 inches (111 cm) and temperature averages 62 degrees (17 degrees centigrade). The growing season averages 216 days.

Flat lowlands with poor natural drainage characterize most of the area. Isolated hills are scattered throughout the plains. Soils in the area are generally poor except along larger streams. A tributary of the Arkansas, the Poteau River, runs through the ranch. Like other tributaries, it is a slow, clear stream.


Species Diversity

In the late 1980s, the Kerr Center inventoried the vegetation of the ranch’s 4,000 acres of pasture, bottomland, woodland, and riparian areas, and catalogued 500 species. Three hundred twelve vertebrate species are native to this region, including

  • white-tailed deer
  • raccoon
  • bears
  • ducks
  • red and gray fox
  • bobcat
  • hawks
  • river otter.

One hundred species of birds, including

  • owls
  • snow geese, and
  • bald eagles

call this region home. Many of these can be viewed on the ranch.

A queen bumble bee in spring pasture

Native pollinators including bumblebees, native bees, and flies are another key element of species diversity on the ranch.

Natural Communities

Before European settlement, tall grass prairie communities containing bluestems, switchgrass, and other tall grasses dominated much of the broad valley. A wide variety of wildflowers and other plants also were present in great numbers. Prairie communities were often scattered between dry upland forests and bottomland hardwood forests that occurred along streams. Fire was an important factor in maintaining these communities.

Shortleaf pine savannas occupied ridge tops of this eco-region. Because these forests are an extension of those dominating the Ouachita Mountains, they are similar in structure and function.

Lush forests of oak, elm, and hackberry occurred along streams and rivers. These tall forests (about 100 feet/30 meters) usually had two or three other levels of trees in the understory, and often accumulated dense mats of leaves and other litter. Scattered clumps of low vegetation thrived in these heavily shaded forests except in openings, where a lush growth of herbaceous plants covered the ground. Grape, poison ivy, and greenbrier vines were common.*

A summer pond on the Stewardship Farm.
A summer pond on the Stewardship Farm.

Today much of the ranch is pastureland, dominated by bermuda grass and tall fescue, both introduced species. Remnants of the natural communities still remain on the ranch, and agroforestry and riparian protection projects have enhanced or restored others.

Throughout, the ranch retains its natural beauty. Crossing the Poteau River to the south side of the ranch, you can imagine you are entering another world, a world before fences and energy crises, a more spacious world of vast prairie, broken by forests of oaks and watered by shimmering oxbow lakes.

On summer evenings, comes the clamor of tree frogs, the buzz saw of cicadas, and the insistent call of the chuck-will’s-widow. There is the fragrance of pine in the humid air, along with the earthy smell of cattle. On a foggy morning, the shiny green fescue is as beautiful as the native big bluestem, and the cows emerging from the fog are as handsome as the deer, their bellows as startling as the bugling of elk.

The farm is a part of nature. That is an ancient, basic idea. But in modern, industrial agriculture, this view of the farm has been replaced by simpler models such as the farm as mining operation, where food is extracted, like gold, from the soil; or the farm as factory, where food is assembled, like a bicycle, from a few raw materials.

In 1986, the Kerr Center began to transform the Kerr Ranch from a well-managed conventional spread into a model sustainable enterprise, tapping into the natural cycles of abundant sun and rain in southeastern Oklahoma to grow grass and beef without relying on chemical fertilizer. In doing so, it became the only sustainable agriculture organization with livestock as a primary focus.

Management Philosophy

To make a ranch or farm sustainable, it must be viewed as a system. Farm as system: Webster’s definition of the word ‘system’ features terms such as ‘interrelated,’ ‘complex,’ and ‘whole.’

In 1989 a group of farm managers, ranch workers, and researchers, headed by Kerr Center president Jim Horne, collaborated on guidelines for evaluating the economic and ecological sustainability of the ranch and center projects.

The guidelines addressed fertility management and soil health; insect, disease and weed management; energy use and conservation; biological diversity; water management; nutrient recycling and waste management; plant and animal adaptation to local conditions; and economic accounting systems (which include both monetary and non-monetary benefits).

These areas form the basis for the book written by Horne and Communications Director Maura McDermott, The Next Green Revolution: Essential Steps to a Healthy, Sustainable Agriculture, published in 2001 by Haworth Press.

* Information on the Arkansas Valley ecoregion was taken from: Oklahoma Biodiversity Task Force, Norman L Murray, editor, Oklahoma’s Biodiversity Plan: A Shared Vision for Conserving Our Natural Heritage, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1996


Sign Up for Our Newsletter