With the recent warm weather, forages are green when they are normally brown this time of year.  Especially down in the swamp pasture.  This wetland area is quite unique, tucked between the more common rolling hills of Lancaster County.  While trudging through the muck with portable fence I was struck by a change in vegetation and open water.  Why the change?  Please refer back to the July 2015 post “Animal Impact – Reed Canary Grass Example“.  Take a moment to look at photos from 2014 & 2015 and compare what you notice in the 2016 photos below.

The first photo shows open water with small floating algae along with a number of different broadleaf plants and some cattails.  Diversity abounds in this area but what happened to the Broad Leaf Arrowhead that was thick in the 2015 photo, the first year after animal impact?

Plant diversity is evident in this swampy area due to past animal impact.

Open water and plant diversity is evident in this swampy area due to past animal impact.

In the photo below we note that the reeds canary grass still maintains a stronghold on most of the swamp area.  Reeds canary is a very productive forage, good for erosion control and our herd doesn’t mind it at all.  Again, my eyes are drawn to the diversity at the bottom of the photo, only made possible by animal impact.

diversity by animal impact

A dull monoculture of reeds canary stand in the top area of the photo.  Open water, broad leaves and bulrush provide diversity in an area of past heavy animal impact, lower part of photo.

I recall hunting this area about 20 years ago with a wildlife biologist.  I asked, what could we do to increase diversity in this swamp area for wildlife?  How could we beat back the monoculture of invasive reeds canary?  He thought for a moment and came up with the idea of “try a burn”.  We did burn this area several times before bringing the herd to the farm.  Let’s just say burning had NO impact compared to what the herd was able to do in just a few weeks.  In addition the “herd effect” has now proven to have a lasting impact!

So is this good, bad or does it even matter?

  • From a strictly “production” stand point, the reeds canary may give more total pounds of forage for the herd.
  • From an ecosystem stand point, we prefer the DIVERSITY:
    • Some species may excel during different times of the year.
      • Monoculture grass results in boom or bust.
    • Different plant species, different nutrient values.
      • Cows can choose between plants.
      • Don’t you like a salad bar of choices rather than just lettuce?
    • Wildlife thrive on edges of habitat.
      • The herd has created an edge in a solid stand of grass!

So the next time someone tells you cattle are evil to the environment consider Alan Savory’s point that a resource cannot cause environmental degradation.  Rather it is the human management of that resource that causes the impact on the environment, good, bad or does it even matter?

Give us a call if you would like to stop by and see first hand the herd in MOOOO-TION.

We are really excited about the post below.  I recently had the opportunity to meet Daniel and Allyson of Lovegrass Beef.  Daniel has a passion for prairies!  Enjoy Daniel’s guest post:

Prairie Gains

By Daniel Frank – Lovegrass Beef

With spring finally here, and plants just beginning to green up, it’s time to get geared up for prescribed burning season.  March 19th to 27th was the seventh annual Training Exchange (TREX) at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, near Johnstown, Nebraska. This is a chance for people around the United States and beyond to knock the rust off, and get back in the burning game. People come to learn, to teach, to get more experience, and also just to help the Preserve burn the acres they have planned.

Maybe I should start by talking about the benefits of prescribed burning. Controlled burns help suppress unwanted woody plants, such as eastern red cedar. They help reduce excess plant buildup in areas that weren’t grazed or hayed, allowing new growth to catch sunlight and flourish. If timed correctly, prescribed fire can also help suppress exotic species like Kentucky bluegrass and Smooth brome. Prairie ecosystems around the world evolved with the presence of fire, and with responsible prescribed burning we can maintain healthy ecosystems that can support a wide variety of life.

This was my second time attending TREX, and like the first year, I had a blast. I learned from the people around me, and I was able to use the knowledge I’d gained from the first year.

test prescribed fire

The test fire is lit, conditions look good, and the firing progresses.

I am a big proponent of prescribed burning. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of putting controlled fire on the ground. My major goal is to maintain a healthy, native, diverse prairie ecosystem. Fire is not the only major force that acts to shape our grassland ecosystems. There are three main forces that shape prairies: fire, grazing, and drought. We have little control over the moisture we receive year to year, so we can focus our management on the other two forces.

The Great Plains evolved with the presence of bison. They would move around the country grazing grasses and some forbs, being pushed by the weather, the quantity of forages, and the time of year. Though bison are not a dominant presence anymore, cattle are a pretty good substitute. With proper management, they are an excellent tool to manage the land. Without grazing, pastures can become overgrown, and some species can be choked out. When cattle graze some areas more than others, plant species respond and their composition changes. This is how rangeland becomes a mosaic of plant communities.

Purple coneflower

Echinacea angustifolia, Purple coneflower. Photo by Allyson Dather.

This brings me to raising cattle on grass. I sell grassfed beef because I believe that ruminant animals which evolved to eat grasses and forbs, should be able to eat that diet exclusively. I am trying to reduce the inputs required to raise market animals. At the same time, the cattle raised on grass are leaner, and are healthier for people to consume. As I already mentioned, grazing is necessary to maintain a healthy prairie. Using cattle as management tools while simultaneously producing a healthy, delicious type of meat is a win-win.

My partner, Allyson Dather, and I started selling grassfed beef under the name Lovegrass Beef in 2015. Sometimes we laugh about how cheesy the name sounds, but it was picked for a couple reasons. Here in the Sandhills we have a lot of Sand Lovegrass (Eragrostis trichodes), and Purple Lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis). These are native warm season grasses with showy seedheads, and the presence of Sand Lovegrass can be indicative of good range management. The other reason we picked the name is because since our cattle are grassfed, they sure ought to love grass!

Cattle grazing Nebraska Sandhills

Cattle grazing native rangeland in late summer/early fall 2013. Photo by Allyson Dather.

Here at our ranch, we are starting to move our operation to becoming more environmentally aware. We have applied for cost-share programs to plant cropland back to rangeland. Hopefully in a few years we can sell the center-pivot irrigation systems after the native plants have a solid foothold. We will be using these pastures to graze cattle during the summer mostly. I’m hoping to be able to create a burn plan for our ranch, where we can defer grazing of certain pastures, and use fire to hold back any invasive plants. We have a 70 acre burn planned for this spring, where we will be putting fire on our land for the first time in probably 100 years. I’m excited to watch the burn in action, and very excited to see the results. 

Thanks Daniel!  “Lovegrass Beef”, I laughed also the first time I saw that name, awesome!  If you would like to comment or connect with Daniel and Allyson, please visit their Facebook page!

Planned pasture grazing requires orchestrating cattle movement.  Yep we think of our cattle moves like making music but we are really trying to get some desired effect applied to the land.  Here is an animal impact example from this past spring.  In an area invaded by reed canary grass our cattle were able to “open up” the land and allow broad leaf arrowhead (a native wetland plant) to express itself:

Broad Leaf Arrowhead

Broad Leaf Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) a native wetland plant expressing itself due to planned animal impact. Multiple insect species found in this diverse area first week of July.

So what were the steps to make the above effect on the land?  It began in March with a trail setup through this area to move cattle to stockpiled pasture on the other side of the wetland area.

Cattle trail through wetland (marsh) area last week of March, looking West.  Cows didn't mind the walk when they wanted fresh water from tank.

Cattle trail through wetland (marsh) area last week of March, looking West. Cows didn’t mind walking through this area when they wanted fresh water from frost proof tank.

When the trail fence was first setup, the wetland was frozen.  Over the next week the wetland thawed and the animal impact started to appear.  The cattle trailed through this area before “green up” for a couple of weeks.  The area looks kind of nasty in the photo above.

First week of April, looking East.  Cows moved on to different stockpiled pasture area.

First week of April, looking East. Cows moved on to different stockpiled pasture area.

With our continuous move pasture grazing system, we knew this area would “bounce” back in some altered state.  Note in the trail photos above we have “open water” areas predominately in the trail.  This open water provides a “habitat” as a result of cattle impact.

First week of July looking West.  Reed canary grass (non-native grass) has brown seed heads.  Very few brown seed heads in cattle trail area.

First week of July looking West. Reed canary grass (non-native grass) has brown seed heads. Very few brown seed heads in cattle trail area.

The red arrow in the photo above points to the location of the broad head arrow leaf plant photo at the top of this blog post.  The photo below is a close up of reed canary grass next to the trailed area:

Solid stand of reed canary grass next to trailed area.  Very little insect life in this low diversity area.

Solid stand of reed canary grass next to trailed area. Very little insect life in this low diversity area.

Wetland sites are very forgiving when it comes to trying animal impact scenarios.  As we move to upland (drier) sites, animal impact becomes a little more scary.  The main difference is planning the recovery time or how long we have before we can bring the cattle back to the area.

Take another look at the photos above.  What was the difference in total production?  Obviously the solid stand of reed canary grass produced higher forage levels.  What was the benefit provided by the higher diversity of the affected area?  From our observations, cattle enjoy diversity in their diet and wildlife prefer the diversity in habitat.  Feel free to give us a call if you would like to stop by and see our cattle herd impacts… we are always happy to listen to other ideas!

Our grass growing season is coming to an end.  The cattle are now grazing “stockpiled” forage.  Stockpiled forage is pasture that we have not grazed for several months.  The grass grew all summer long and left un-grazed as “stockpile”, for grazing during the non-growing season.

calves in stockpiled forage

Calves moving into “stockpiled” forage.

While setting up portable fence in the pasture today we noticed a number of gopher mounds.  We have seen a few gopher mounds over the past few years, but in just a small area today we noted three different mounds.  Gophers dig tunnels under the soil surface feeding on roots and who knows what else.  At first glance one may conclude the gophers are bad.  Feeding on grass roots and making soil piles will reduce the amount of grass available for the cattle to graze, right?  From an ecological point of view, increased gopher activity in our pasture maybe a good sign.  Aeration of the soil will increase water infiltration.  The freshly tilled soil may allow new forage species to grow.  Diversity of life is always a good sign of a healthy prairie in our opinion.

gopher activity

Gopher “soil” mounds.

So while others may see gophers as bad and consider poison to reduce their numbers, for now we will accept the increase in gopher activity as a good sign that our prairie is moving in a positive direction.  More diversity will help our pastures become more resilient in the future.