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Consider Ecological Functions To Better Manage Grazing

Consider Ecological Functions To Better Manage Grazing

I believe in “good grazing” or grazing management as a way to be more efficient and more profitable. For me, the topic is much broader than most of us consider when we think of grazing. It includes the way we feed and supplement, whether we put up hay and how much, and whether we hay that same land every year. Other factors include the location of stock water and livestock working and shipping facilities.

Whether we recognize it or not, grazing – or lack of grazing – has an effect, or multiple effects, on the ecosystem. The decisions we make can have good or bad effects; and sometimes there are good and bad effects from the same decision. We often make decisions without understanding what it means for the ecosystem and its future productivity.

For that reason, I’ve developed a dislike for the statement, “take half, leave half,” which can actually be a good rule of thumb. But, when we ask “which half,” we begin to recognize that cattle may take almost all of the plant material out of part of the pasture and leave almost all in another part.

In other words, we may see (and usually do) over-grazing and over-resting in the same pasture. Was that the intent of “take half, leave half”? We can manage grazing so that take-half, leave-half is more evenly distributed and much better for future productivity.

To begin to understand what grazing does to the land and soil we need to be aware of four basic ecosystem blocks or functions:

• Water cycledescribes the various paths that precipitation (snow or rain), may take before returning to the sky to fall again. You can’t kill water, but you can make it less effective.

Meanwhile, if our management of grazing and the land can cause a little more of the rain or snow to be available for plant growth, a whole host of good things are set in motion. Good grazing leaves litter on the soil surface, as well as residual standing plant material, which will greatly improve water infiltration and retention in the soil, especially during heavy rains; it also will reduce evaporation. As a result, more water will be available to plants.

But, some will run off or evaporate before doing much good; some will transpire to the air as a result of plant growth and photosynthesis, which is desirable and productive; some will percolate on through the soil and come back through springs and seeps to feed creeks and rivers; and some will drain to the aquifer.

Mineral cycle in this context describes the route that minerals take as they come from the soil in the form of plant material and return back to the soil. Much of the plant material is eaten by large and small animals and by a host of birds and insects. Then, the carcasses and waste materials of these animals, insects, etc., are eaten by other insects and soil microorganisms until ultimately the minerals and other nutrients can be taken up by plants for more growth and production.

As ranches, we usually think in terms of cows leaving urine and manure on the land or laying plant litter on the soil surface to feed insects and other creatures that take the minerals down into the soil.  Appropriate grazing can increase the effectiveness of the mineral by converting plant material to urine and manure. That urine and manure deposited on the soil can then be utilized by plants or other organisms, which will ultimately be plant food themselves.

The grazing animal can also trample plants and lay litter on the soil surface. Putting the plant material on the soil surface makes it available to many soil-dwelling creatures that will begin the process of getting it back into the soil.

Energy flow describes the flow of energy from the sun and its multiple benefits to earth’s creatures and mankind. In addition to warming the earth, the sun’s energy is responsible for all biological activity and function. It’s first used by plants as a result of photosynthesis, and then plants become food to many animals, insects, birds and a host of other creatures. These then can all become food to each other.

This is a very complex web of activity that creates food, fiber and many products for people. As ranchers, we think of the sun shining on plant leaves (mostly grass), thus enabling the plant to use carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and minerals and water from the air and soil to grow and produce livestock feed, which can then be transformed into food for humans.

Biological succession is the change in biodiversity that occurs as a result of any change in the other ecosystem functions or climatic factors. It is always happening – sometimes for good and sometimes for ill, but usually some of each; and good or ill may depend on your goals.

When I first went to the Sandhills in Nebraska, I noticed a number of windmills with large blowouts around them. This had been caused by continuous summer grazing around water tanks. Only sand was left on quite a number of acres at some of the windmills.

We began to feed the lowest-quality hay we had on some of these blowouts, until the animals wouldn’t eat it all because it was lying on yesterday’s manure. This resulted in a nice litter cover on the blowout area.

That litter kept the sand from blowing and cutting off new sprouting plants. In the first year, we got a nice crop of tall weeds. The next year, we had weeds and some annual grasses. By the third year, we started to see some perennial grasses. Within a few years, these sites were nearly completely healed with many birds, bugs and other small animals in the habitat. And, all of this occurred with no additional treatment.

This is a simple example of succession that started with one management act. Some plants and animals thrive and increase under one set of circumstances, while others struggle and decline. Almost every change we make in our management of grazing and land will set in motion a reaction of succession changes.

As managers, we can use our understanding of the ecological functions to manage our grazing to better meet our production goals. Next month, I’ll discuss the power of good grazing and its effect on the effectiveness of the ecological functions.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He can be reached at[email protected].

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