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,” says Chaplin, who is in the Conservancy’s Minnesota field office. No surprises there. But less expected is Chaplin’s next words: “We would like to see grazing on a large scale, which would mean grazing across public-private property lines. To a lot of conservationists it is probably surprising that we need more people, rather than fewer people, to improve the landscape.”
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, rather than scrubby patches of land covered by red cedar and other invasives. That’s why Chaplin and other natural resource experts are welcoming cattle onto lands that were once verboten to livestock: preserves, wildlife refuges and other natural tracts of real estate. One place where this trend is gaining momentum is western Minnesota, where an agriculture-dominated landscape is dotted with remnant prairies and some of the most valuable waterfowl habitat in the region.
Public agencies and private conservation groups are fast realizing that buying up land and putting up “Nature Preserve” signs won’t secure the long-term sustainability of that habitat—it needs active management, the kind that toes the line between stressing the environment and allowing it to recover.
It turns out when cattle are used to provide that well-balanced mix, the result can be a healthier, more diverse habitat, as well as an extra incentive for farmers to keep livestock as a key part of their enterprises.
“We need to keep cowmen on the ground,” says 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.”
A Disturbing Development
In the Midwest, cattle’s return to prairies and other natural areas is a relatively recent phenomenon. Grazing of public lands has a long history out West, where large herds of cattle 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.
“When you talk about the West, grazing on public lands has a black eye or two,” says Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prairie habitat ecologist Greg Hoch. In these circumstances, banning livestock from natural areas and refuges would appear to be a no-brainer. But such a rigid line in the grass can result in lands that suffer from severe benign neglect.
“This is Minnesota—if you don’t graze or burn it, it will become forest,” says Bruce Freske, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Morris Wetland District.
Depending on the situation, grasslands require a major disturbance at least every five to 10 years, something bison and wildfires provided in days gone by. More recently natural resource experts have purposely burned off grasslands to keep woody invasives at bay and recharge green growth. But managing a burn can be expensive and it requires optimal weather conditions.
As a result, refuge managers concede they are woefully behind on burning, and they are watching with alarm as pastures purchased from farmers become inundated with cedar, Siberian elm, Russian olive and red-osier dogwood within four or five years.
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 system can extend the grass season, cut costs and in general produce more profits. Advances in watering systems, lightweight moveable electric fencing and automatic gate openers have made rotational grazing even more viable.
This type of grazing system fits well with what refuge managers are looking for: short-term impact (a few weeks) and long-term rest (a year or more), something people like Hoch call “conservation grazing.”
“The key is to hit it and rest it,” he says. “That’s how these prairies evolved with the bison. Keeping livestock on pasture year-after-year will just clobber it, but I’m 100 percent convinced that if we do grazing right, grassland diversity will increase.”
Rangeland science backs up Hoch’s contention. Studies in numerous states show that conservation grazing can as much as double plant diversity in an area—it not only prevents overgrazing but the cattle’s manure and urine helps recharge the soil’s biology. Hoch and other habitat experts working in western Minnesota have observed how grazing has increased native plant communities by knocking back invasive cool season plants like Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome. Such invasives can blanket the land with a homogeneous cover, which limits the diversity wildlife such as deer, waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland songbirds require. Such grasses also tend to go dormant in hot weather and provide limited habitat and foraging areas for pollinators.
Cattle are also being used to thin out cattails and reed-canary grass around wetlands, providing the open areas many waterfowl prefer when keeping a lookout for predators. And controlled grazing of riparian areas is proving to be an effective way to stabilize areas along waterways and lakes.
The science has become so convincing that conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society have changed their once decidedly negative view of cattle and now see them as an effective habitat management tool.
Right now 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. For example, of the 50,000 acres the Fish and Wildlife Service manages in the Morris District, around 5,000 acres are grazed by 35 different producers. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources uses grazing on about 10,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas statewide and has a goal of pushing that to 50,000 acres by 2015, which would still be only 4 percent of all state refuge acreage. The Nature Conservancy grazes less than 15 percent of the 63,500 acres it owns in Minnesota.
Nevertheless, conservation grazing is seen as a potentially key tool in targeted areas. The Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, which was published in June 2011 by 10 conservation agencies and organizations, provides a blueprint on how to save and manage a resource that once covered 18 million acres of the state but is now down to 235,000 acres and shrinking fast. The authors of the report identified conservation grazing as a major method for preserving and managing grasslands.
The 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. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2013 that between 2006 and 2011, 1.3 million acres of grassland were converted to crops in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Such conversion rates haven’t been seen since the 1920s and 1930s.
Bright, who works with a couple dozen cattle producers who graze refuge land, says livestock producers are increasingly getting “desperate” for pasture as acres they rent are switched to row crops. “I had one guy say, ‘I lost 240 acres to the plow.’ ”
It should be kept in mind that although wildlife managers and farmers share a common desire to save grass, they can still differ widely on what that resource should ultimately produce. Livestock producers usually pay a fee to graze refuges and other natural areas, but that doesn’t give them carte blanche—the refuge manager’s goal of protecting the resource takes precedence over profits.
“The farmer wants the feed and the natural resource manager wants the diversity of plants,” says Howard Moechnig, who operates a grazing consulting firm called Midwest Grasslands. “Sometimes the two don’t match.”
But when they do, it can be a good way to manage an important resource on multiple levels, says Dan Jenniges, who has a cow-calf operation near Glenwood in west-central Minnesota. Jenniges, who has been grazing Fish and Wildlife Service land for eight years and Department of Natural Resources land for two, says the grazing schedule and intensity can vary from year-to-year.
“It depends on what their objectives are for their particular piece of land,” he says of the refuge staffers he works with. Sometimes his cattle are brought in during the spring to knock back cool season grasses like brome and bluegrass just as they’re starting growth; other times a fall grazing is called for to stymie the same grasses as they are coming out of summer dormancy.
Some of Jenniges’ land is adjacent to refuge land, making grazing the public areas convenient; in other cases he has to transport the cattle several miles for a grazing season that may only last around a month. That can be a hassle, but it allows him to give his own pastures a rest and break up pest cycles while contributing to the health of the overall landscape.
“We aren’t renting the grassland—we’re managing it,” says Jenniges. “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.”