The Switzer Ranch of Loup County, operated by Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer and their children, Sarah Sortum and Adam Switzer, has been selected as the 2021 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award winner.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat resources in their care.
In Nebraska, the award is presented annually by the Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska, Cargill, and the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
About the ranch
Sarah Sortum and Adam Switzer are siblings and fourth-generation ranchers committed to the stewardship of Switzer Ranch. They express a land ethic passed down from their parents, Bruce and Sue Ann, by implementing agricultural conservation practices and connecting others with nature.
In addition to custom-grazing beef cattle on 12,000 acres of native prairie, the Switzer family also operates a nature-based tourism business. Calamus Outfitters offers lodging, event space, river float trips, and eco-tours of the Sandhills.
“Our focus really started to shift from being solely a cow-calf operation to being an operation with biodiversity goals about 12 years ago,” Sarah says.
To accomplish these goals, the family used the ecological processes that helped shape the Great Plains — fire and grazing. A huge motivator for the family was the rapidly disappearing habitat of native prairie grouse.
“At the time, we didn’t realize the plight that grassland birds were in,” Sarah recalls. “If this is their last stronghold, we have got to step up and make sure we provide what they need to survive.”
With assistance from Audubon Nebraska and the World Wildlife Fund, the Switzers learned about bird counting, bird behavior and other details about the greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse. They realized small changes to their ranch management plans could make a big difference for these resident birds that don’t migrate elsewhere.
Protecting bird habitat
The Switzers located and documented with GPS the birds’ breeding grounds on the ranch. This helped prioritize which areas to target for removal of invasive species that threaten bird habitat. With a life span of about five years for the prairie chickens, the Switzers wanted to be sure they quickly focused on the right pockets of the ranch.
“A lot can happen in five years, as far as damaging a whole generation of birds,” Sarah says.
The Switzers received cost-share from the Sandhills Task Force and Nebraska Game and Parks for invasive tree removal and prescribed burns.
With support from local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service staff, they installed wildlife-friendly fencing, added wildlife escape ramps in their watering tanks, and implemented bird and wildlife-friendly haying practices. Land along the Calamus River was placed in a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy.
The Switzers have met the biodiversity goals they set out to achieve 12 years ago with the use of fire and rotational grazing. They showed that ranchers can create bird and wildlife habitat, while improving water quality, soil health and root systems in the environmentally sensitive Sandhills.
Not only did their efforts lead to an uptick in bird watchers visiting the ranch, but when Audubon Nebraska designated the ranch as an Important Bird Area, it was among the first private properties in Nebraska with that designation.
Always looking to connect others to the importance of grassland bird habitat, the Switzers even played host to a fun and educational Prairie Chicken Festival.
Resiliency is defined on some ranches as the conservation of natural resources. For others, it’s ensuring future economic viability. At Switzer Ranch, these attributes go hand in hand.
Announcement of award
The announcement of the award was made by Gov. Pete Ricketts in advance of Earth Day. The Switzers will be presented with the $10,000 award during a ceremony honoring them later this year.
“As Nebraska agriculture continues its excellent work in balancing the need for clean air, water and managing wildlife habitat with the demand for economically sustainable food production, it is inspiring to know the Switzer family has been doing it for generations,” says Steve Martin, Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska executive director. “They manage their ranch in a way which benefits the cattle, bird habitat and agritourism all at the same time.”
“Cargill understands sustainable beef starts on the ranch. The Switzer family dovetails productive ranch practices to benefit the prairie bird population and their business, making them sustainable into the future” says Sammy Renteria, general manager of Cargill in Schuyler. “We salute their devotion to productive ranching while providing quality habitat for wildlife in Loup County and Taylor.”
Mark Brohman, Nebraska Environmental Trust executive director notes, “The Switzer Ranch has demonstrated how an active ranch can diversify and be successful at raising cattle, involve multigenerations, protect wildlife, improve grazing and habitat, and operate a thriving tourism business. Sarah and her family have grown Calamus Outfitters into a premier nature-based operation that showcases central Nebraska to the world and is very deserving of the Leopold Conservation Award.”
“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust celebrates the hard work and dedication of the Nebraska recipient,” adds John Piotti, AFT president and CEO. “At AFT, we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people, and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”
“Recipients of this award are real-life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” says Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation president and CEO. “These hardworking families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”
Last year, Nebraska landowners were encouraged to apply or be nominated for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders. The 2020 recipient was Ed and Leta Olson of Craig, Neb.
The Leopold Conservation Award in Nebraska is made possible thanks to the generous contributions from American Farmland Trust, Cargill, Nebraska Environmental Trust, Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska, Sand County Foundation, Farm Credit Services of America, Audubon Nebraska, Lyle Sittler Memorial Fund, McDonald’s, Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Land Trust, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Sandhills Task Force, Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, USDA NRCS, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, World Wildlife Fund — Northern Great Plains, and Green Cover Seed.
The Sand County Foundation presents the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 22 states for extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation. For more information on the award, visit leopoldconservationaward.org.