Nebraska Game and Parks Commission



Jean M. Novacek

Date of this Version



Novacek, Jean M. January 1986. Native Hay Production Along a Depth-To-Water-Table Gradient in Eastern Sandhills Wet Meadows, Wheeler County, Nebraska. Nebraska Natural Resources Commission. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. 63 pp.


The Sandhills region of Nebraska, the largest dune field in the Western Hemisphere, occupies 15 north-central counties and extends over 51,800 km (20,000 mi) (Keech and Bentall, 1971; Ahlbrandt and Fryberger, 1980). Far from a desert, the Sandhills region is entirely vegetated by mixed-grass prairie with numerous wet areas and lakes in interdunal valleys. This rich, grass-covered dune sea stretches 427 km (265 mi) across from east to west and 209 km (130 miles) from north to south. The altitudes range from 670 m (2200 ft) above sea level in the eastern part to 1310 m (4300 ft) in the western part. Average dune heights range from 15 m (50 ft) above the valley floor in the eastern Sandhills to more than 92 m (300 ft) in the western half.

Sandhills wetlands are important to wildlife, waterfowl and other aquatic birds, plant-life and people. They offer recreational opportunities, are aesthetically pleasing and provide water for livestock in some areas. The subirrigated meadow, or wet meadow, is the single most important wetland, however, as an economic resource to local ranchers. Native hay harvested from wet meadows provides important winter forage for livestock and is sometimes sold as a cash crop (Nebr. NRC, 1984). Ehlers et al. (1952) stated that an individual ranch’s efficiency is determined by the ratio of summer grazing to winter forage. Brouse and Burzlaff (1968) pointed out that many ranchers scale the size of their herd to available winter hay supply. In some areas a limited amount of grazing is allowed on the meadows after harvesting in the fall or during calving in the early spring. Clanton and Burzlaff (1966) have recommended that ranchers could more fully utilize their meadows by grazing one year and harvesting hay in two consecutive years in a three year rotation. According to their findings, a rancher could graze as much as one-third of his present hayland each year, but grazing meadows in two consecutive years is not recommended.