The McGinley Ranch (“Ranch”) was purchased by Ted Turner in 1999 and donated to the Institute in 2021. The Ranch is comprised of 79,292 acres of native rangeland in the Northern Sandhills ecoregion and straddles the border between Nebraska and South Dakota. The Sandhills are considered the largest grass stabilized dune system in the Western Hemisphere. These stabilized dunes are intersected with interdunal valleys and support a productive mixed grass community dominated by sand bluestem, Indian grass, prairie sandreed, and needle-and-thread grass. Historically these grasslands were maintained by grazing, fire, and climatic patterns.
The Ranch encompasses over 60 small lakes and natural ponds, multiple headwater streams, and extensive wet meadow complexes. There are roughly 20,000 acres of water and riparian areas with vegetative communities dependent on the shallow, interdunal water table characteristic of the Sandhills. These meadow and wetland complexes provide high quality habitat for an abundance of resident and migratory wildlife. Common sightings include waterfowl, birds of prey, shorebirds, upland nesting birds, neotropical migratory songbirds, small mammals, native reptiles, deer, elk, and antelope.
As part of Mr. Turner’s land management and conservation philosophy, the Ranch is stocked with American plains bison, the native ungulate that historically grazed North American prairies. Bison are uniquely adapted to efficiently use the diverse forage resources of the Sandhills ecosystem. The Ranch’s range management objective is to optimize forage utilization by bison to promote improvement in rangeland health through:
- Use of adaptively managed, rest rotational bison grazing to promote soil health and biodiversity of native species,
- Strategic and limited use of haying as a periodic disturbance to enhance soil health and biological activity,
- Limited use of no-till inter-seeding of highly diverse native plant mixes into small disturbance areas to promote soil health, biodiversity, and increase pollinator habitat,
- Use of animals adapted to their environment to greatly reduce and/or eliminate synthetic inputs and fossil fuel use as well as promote healthier soils and ecosystems,
- Management of bison grazing to reduce prevalence of invasives and elicit positive responses from native flora, in some cases,
- High emphasis on animal welfare using low stress livestock handling techniques to aid in strategic and adaptive grazing, and
- Reintroduction of fire on the landscape.
The Ranch supports a herd of approximately 4,000 bison and can withstand a minimum of a two-year drought cycle without destocking or damaging rangeland resources. Currently, two-year old bulls are the only age class of bulls used for breeding. Calves are weaned naturally by their mothers to reduce stress on both parent and offspring. This practice likely promotes generational transfer of knowledge among animals and healthier yearlings, leading to more diverse grazing habits and better adapted animals. Supplemental feeding is limited, but occasionally and purposively used to achieve regenerative grazing goals or low-stress handling objectives. Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing and flexible stock densities mixed with unique practices such as bale grazing have allowed us to strategically discourage non-native plants and provide native species a competitive advantage.
McGinley Ranch is well positioned to support an active ecoagriculture research program. It’s size and scale can support big and long-term projects. The Ranch’s diverse and intact landscapes allow broad opportunities to explore diverse ecoagriculture questions such as animal health, nutrition, and welfare; food security; native species conservation and restoration; forage production; ecosystem services; and climate issues; among others. The Ranch has been at the forefront of developing new ideas and problem solving in the agriculture and ecological sciences, especially in collaboration with university, industry, and governmental partners.