New Research Leads To New Projects At The Meat Animal Research Center
The USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) is a roughly 35,000ac tract of public land located in the western part of Clay County. The MARC’s objectives are to increase efficiency of production while maintaining a lean, high quality, safe product. About 50% of their efforts focus on beef cattle production. MARC staff are continually conducting research on both short-term and long-term solutions to improving animal production and product quality. This area is located near the center of the Rainwater Basin, and thus contains many shallow playa wetlands. Most of the MARC wetlands are small Butler/Fillmore ephemeral wetlands. Rainwater Basin Wetlands support nearly 10 million migrating waterfowl each spring. Since only about 10% of these historic wetlands remain, it is imperative to restore/enhance as many RWB wetlands as possible to ensure that the migrating waterfowl have enough forage.
In 2021, MARC Director, Mark Boggess, read the UNL Extension Article entitled “Grazing Rainwater Basin Wetlands” written by Bruce Anderson, Heidi Hillhouse, Andy Bishop, and Eleanor Nugent. He became very interested in better utilizing the wetlands within the MARC’s boundaries to improve forage production for cattle grazing. He knew that in addition to sedimentation, many of the wetlands on the MARC had been artificially manipulated (drained, filled, etc.) in efforts to try to increase perceived upland grazing opportunities. These wetlands were not functioning naturally and needed hydrology to be restored in order to actually increase forage production. He had also heard that the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) had funding available for wetland restorations on private and public lands.
Lance Schutte, Range and Forage Manager, contacted the RWBJV about a site on the MARC that was considered a good candidate for wetland restoration. This initial project (in Paddocks 15A3 and 15A4) was completed in 2022 with the idea that it would be the first of many, with additional wetlands restored/enhanced every couple of years. The project components at this first site included the wetland restoration, seeding, and fencing installation. Restoring the wetland and re-seeding the area improved the wetland/upland habitat on this property. Installing a wildlife-friendly fence allowed the site to be grazed. Grazing enhances wetland habitat for wildlife, controls invasive species, and promotes a diverse mixture of moist soil plants. An NRCS Soil Scientist conducted soil surveys and an NRCS Engineer completed the restoration design. This design included a spillway and stop-log structure as requested by Lance to allow MARC staff to manipulate water levels to further benefit wildlife. Native seed mixes (for uplands and wetlands) were provided by Arrow Seed and Star Seed. The RBWJV purchased fencing supplies. MARC staff provided in-kind support for this project by seeding the site and installing the fencing. The project was completed in June 2022.
The first project was such a success that within 6 months, Lance proposed another wetland enhancement project on another part of the MARC property. Plans are now underway to complete this second project on three small wetlands in the southwestern part of the MARC. Once again, an NRCS Soil Scientist completed soil surveys while an NRCS Engineer is completing the restoration design. Native seed will be purchased and seeded over all of the disturbed area. The goals of this second MARC restoration are to maximize ponding frequency and duration during the spring migration for wetland dependent migratory birds, AND to increase forage production. New partners (Ducks Unlimited and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) have come on board to assist with this second restoration. The restoration design should be finalized soon with construction planned for Winter 2023/2024. This unique partnership between the MARC, the RWBJV, NRCS, Ducks Unlimited, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is sure to benefit waterfowl and other wetland species in the heart of the Rainwater Basin for many years to come.