The University of Nebraska–Lincoln has a long history of being a leader in the study of rangeland and prairie ecology and management. Pioneers in rangeland ecology, such as Charles Bessey, Fredric Clements, and John E. Weaver, taught and conducted research at the University of Nebraska. These scientists made ground breaking discoveries that still influence the study of rangelands today. Researchers at UNL continue to build upon the discoveries of these scientist by moving the rangeland research forward at several field sites across the state.
Rangelands are described as “land on which the indigenous vegetation is predominantly grasses, grass-like plants, forbs, or shrubs and is managed as a natural ecosystem.” Rangeland Ecology and Management is a field of study devoted to understanding and managing these important ecosystems.
Rangeland ecosystems occupy approximately 46 percent of Nebraska’s 49.5 million acres. Rangelands vary from the semi-arid shortgrass prairie in western Nebraska to tallgrass prairie in the east with mixed-grass prairies in the central regions of the state.
Rangelands provide valuable ecosystem services to Nebraskans through habitat for wildlife, protection to soil from wind and water erosion, filtering of rain runoff into streams, recharge to underground aquifers, recreation, aesthetically pleasing landscapes, and many other important functions.
Rangelands in Nebraska also provide a valuable forage resource for livestock producers. The cattle industry contributes approximately $12 billion to Nebraska’s economy each year. In 2015, the number of cattle in Nebraska was estimated at 6.3 million head ranking 2nd in the nation (USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service). Nearly all cattle production in the US starts with cow-calf operations centered on rangelands. Clearly, all Nebraskans benefit in some way from healthy and sustainable rangelands throughout the state.
Characterization of different rangeland types in Nebraska
There are four main types of prairie communities found in Nebraska: tallgrass prairie in the east, loess mixed-grass prairie in the central and southern reaches of the state, Sandhills mixed-grass prairie in the northcentral, and shortgrass prairie in the west and Panhandle. Variation in annual precipitation, as well as soil characteristics and topography, all play a role in determining where different prairie types occur in the state.
Tallgrass prairie | Loess mixed-grass prairie | Sandhills mixed-grass prairie | Shortgrass prairie