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Grazing as a public good

Livestock producers are beginning to utilize managed rotational grazing or conservation grazing. It can double plant diversity, knock back invasive species and enrich soil biology. (Contributed)

By Brian DeVore

Land Stewardship Project

As a Nature Conservancy scientist based in a Midwestern state, Steve Chaplin thinks a lot about the impact agriculture has on ecological treasures such as native tallgrass prairie.

“Other than plowing, grazing has probably been responsible for the degradation of more prairie than any other source,” said Chaplin, who is in the Conservancy’s Minnesota field office. “We would like to see grazing on a large scale, which would mean grazing across public-private property lines.”

More farmers – and by extension, the cattle they manage – means more disturbance, and that’s a good thing. It turns out native prairies, other grass-based habitats and even wetlands need a little disruption of growth patterns if they are to remain healthy ecosystems.

That’s why Chaplin and other natural resource experts are welcoming cattle onto lands that were once off limits to livestock: preserves, wildlife refuges and other natural tracts of real estate.

One place where this trend is gaining momentum is western Minnesota.

“We need to keep cowmen on the ground,” said J. B. Bright, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge specialist who works with graziers in western Minnesota. “The local economies are stronger, and the perennial plant systems

are stronger.”

Grazing of public lands has a long history in the western U.S., where large cattle herds have been allowed to roam at will on natural areas during the entire growing season, often with little or no controls.

In some cases, the result has been decimated grasslands and destruction of riparian areas, resulting in destroyed wildlife habitat, erosion and polluted water.

In these circumstances, banning livestock from natural areas and refuges would appear to be a no-brainer. But always drawing a rigid line in the grass can result in lands that suffer from severe benign neglect.

Fortunately, innovations in grass-based livestock production offer a prime opportunity to bring back the kind of flash disturbances that haven’t been around since the time of the bison.

Livestock producers utilizing managed rotational grazing are seeing the benefits of moving cattle frequently through numerous paddocks, rather than keeping them on the same pasture all season long, where it becomes overgrazed.

This type of grazing system fits well with what refuge managers are looking for: short-term impact and long-term rest, something called “conservation grazing.” Studies show that conservation grazing can as much as double plant diversity in an area by knocking back invasive species and enriching soil biology.

A small percentage of Minnesota preserves are being managed via grazing, and conservationists say even if the practice is expanded significantly, it’s doubtful it will be present on the majority of acres.

Nevertheless, conservation grazing is seen as a potentially key tool in targeted areas. The 2011 Prairie Conservation Plan highlights a shared threat livestock farmers and conservationists face: the plowing up of grass to make way for more corn and soybeans.

Dan Jenniges, who has a cow-calf operation near Glenwood, said grazing refuges allows him to give his own pastures a rest and break up pest cycles while contributing to the health of the overall landscape.

“When you’re grazing that public land, you’re able to take pressure off your own lands, so in general all the grasslands become better, whether it’s for the grass or the wildlife,” Jenniges said.

The Land Stewardship Project’s Chippewa 10% Project works with farmers in the Chippewa watershed to meet their conservation goals and improve farm profitability.