Survival Tools for Today's Ranch
Part I: Innovative Ideas for Ranching in the 21st Century
|The conference was held at the Red Cliffs Lodge near Moab overlooking the Colorado River.|
A conference was held in Moab on Dec. 13-14 2002 which was sponsored by the newly formed Utah Range Coalition, which consists of five soil conservation districts, Castleland Resource Conservation and Development Council, USU Extension Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Emery County Public Lands Council, ranchers and other concerned citizens, all within the Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties area of the state. There were more than 120 people in attendance; 50 percent of attendees were made up of ranchers and the others were local state and federal agency personnel. Environmentalists and some interested citizens were also in attendance.
The purpose of the conference was to discuss modern day ranching and innovative ideas pertaining to grazing and maintaining rangelands. Roger Barton, Ferron resident, and chairman of the Utah Range Coalition greeted the conference goers. He said they formed a union or an alliance in July to get the people here involved. They called their new organization the Utah Range Coalition. "It is still an infant in its existence. The Quivira Coalition from New Mexico has been involved in the same thing for a few years now. We wanted to get them to come to Utah to present their ideas and survival tools for running a ranch in the 21st century. There was a willingness to work together among the different parties and the Utah Range Coalition Committee met in Moab to begin planning. Our goal is to sustain and/or improve rangeland health, with grazing used as a management tool to accomplish this. We also want to keep the ranching industry alive in Southeastern Utah. We scrambled for funding for the conference because the cost of the conference exceeds the registration costs," said Barton. Some background information was shared concerning the Quivira Coalition. The Quivira Coalition deals with sharing common sense solutions to the rangeland conflict. They are a nonprofit organization which began about five and a half years ago. They began working to find some common ground in dealing with rangeland issues. They viewed fighting over issues as crazy and began to work with the radical center to solve problems. The Quivira Coalition is working with new ideas and new thinking. They introduce new ideas at their conference held yearly in Albuquerque, N.M. Their next conference will be held Jan. 16-18. This conference brings ranchers and conservationists together. Courtney White, cofounder of the Quivira Coalition said they met with Roger Barton and the others and they are doing a great job encouraging people to come together to help solve the crisis. Barton invited White to come to Utah to help spread the message. White said, "This is a good opportunity to pass on information, I view it as a tool in my tool box. Roger has worked hard to bring this conference together and we're glad to be here to help."
Jim Howell was next to speak to the conference. He is a rancher and educator from Montrose, Colo. He said he is a small scale rancher with an outfitting business and he also works custom grazing cows for other people. In 1996 he toured Africa and viewed grazing there. He has also visited Argentina, Australia and other countries and studied their particular situations.
Howell began with a discussion of the brittleness scale and environments which are nonbrittle on the low end of the scale and those highly brittle environments. He talked about the annual growth of each environment and the breakdown of the vegetation there. The ultimate question was how much biomass is that land capable of producing. He described the spectrum from tropical rain forests to true deserts. Plant growth is determined by the rainfall patterns and the length of the growing season. He described the vegetation which grows in an area where they receive 30-60 inches of rain per year. The vegetation grows between 7-10 feet and they have a lot of material to work with.
These grasses are sometimes only 2 percent protein. Another challenge is a hard soil cap. The vegetation is so thick that the rain cannot reach the ground and a hard soil cap forms. If the decadent material is not removed then the rainfall cannot reach the ground. Howell described the major herbivores in Africa like the elephant, rhino and hippo. They can exist on high quantities of this low quality feed. They have adapted to feed of this type. The grazing succession and patterns of these migratory animals begin with the large animals going into the grasses when they are the tallest and the smaller animals follow them. One hundred percent of the growing surface has been covered by the animals and the soil is ready for the coming rains.
He described how the ranchers there go to extreme lengths to assure the physical disturbance which breaks the material down. They use electrical fences which are portable. They keep the cattle moving constantly in the dormant season. Some of the plants are almost like wood in their density. In Africa in September and October they will burn off the unused feed. There are layers and layers of smoke during this time. The cattle are also managed during the wet season. The cattle want the freshest feed and through control they are moved to new areas and away from watering points where they have a tendency to linger.Plants that are not grazed will die out. It is vital to keep soil surfaces covered.
Howell explained that in our country rainfall is spread out and not reliable. He described a ranch in Wyoming where they worked to bring back the willows and the beaver and revitalize the riparian areas. When the new pattern for vegetation growth had been established the moose also came back to the area. "It is hard to maintain soil cover in the environments we deal with," he said.
A ranch in New Mexico with a mild steppe environment or desert might typically have two growing seasons whenever the rain comes....both are unreliable. Patches of green appear here and there depending on the rains. There is a predictable spring greenup, but how much vegetation actually grows depends on the previous winter's precipitation. There are challenges in keeping the soil covered and maintaining plant vigor.
Howell went on to explain the migratory patterns of the ruminant animals. He called them migratory grazers. He described the animals in the cold steppe country. The Tibetan antelope is a highly migratory animal. Their migration patterns are based on the predators. In our area mule deer show migratory patterns. The buffalo were also huge migrating animals before their numbers were reduced. Huge herds of antelope also used to cover our areas. The migratory patterns do not lead the animals back to the same area at the same time each year.
Howell also described the animals that used to be on our continent. All of the animals came with predators. One of the predators was man and the big game hunting culture which manipulated the habitat and caused changes. Wherever man has been introduced there has been a change to the landscape. The plants here now are the same ones the prehistoric animals used. The significance of the research that has been conducted on the wildebeest is they do not graze in an area the same each year. Their migration leads them to different corridors with different impacts on different grazing areas. They spend the winters on the dry plains and they are in the wetlands during the growing season. Their patterns vary dramatically from year to year. Areas that are grazed intensively varies.
The caribou had rested one of their summer ranges for five years and their winter ranges vary. They return to the same calving area each year. Animals migrate to get away from their predators. The predators don't travel long distances and they go where the predators can't survive. The wildebeest goes to the high plain to give birth to get away from the predators.
There are areas where we have kept cattle out for a year and a half to allow the grasses to recover. The standing forage, older materials and the soil surface recovered just after a year and a half. Heavy grazing can help the recovery period by reducing the old growth. Recovery can also be enhanced by a couple of good growing seasons. Areas that had been grazed heavy were coming back after the September rains of this year. Plants need to get all the old growth out. Cattle do that by knocking of the old growth with their mouths while searching for the green growth.
Howell worked with a ranch in Texas that had been overrested since they got rid of the sheep. For 25 years it hadn't been grazed and the country needed grazing. Plants will be reinvigorated if they are grazed off. A pasture can be grazed once and then you can come back and graze it again during the dormant season. Then the pasture can be taken out of the grazing plan for the extended recovery period which would be enough time to ensure periods of significant regrowth. Time, frequency and intensity are the keys. Good use of the electric fence as a cow herder can utilize a pasture to its full capacity. The portable electric fence ads flexibility. The wire can be strung through the brush which eliminates the need for a lot of fence posts.
You can control the intensity by keeping them in a tighter bunch. A back fence is not needed because the cows will always move to the freshest feed. Howell encouraged the ranchers to make a long term grazing plan, dividing their grazing allotments into several pasture units. Each pasture unit would be grazed differently during a six year cycle. Year one would include heavy grazing, year two, no grazing, years three, four and five; light to moderate grazing and year six, heavy grazing which would begin the cycle again.
He said they are in the third year of doing this and have increased the litter cover on the soil. Grazing plans ensure that if you grazed an area last June you won't graze it again this June. If fall plants survive the winter they can green up early in the spring. Fall grazing can hurt an area which might show good spring green up. "Frequency, timing and intensity can over time improve the looks of your ranch. Keeping good records is vital; record pasture size and give each pasture a rating. Include maps of where the animals were and where the fences were. We can learn from migratory patterns how to heal landscapes and make them better than they are," said Howell.
(This article begins a series of articles on rangeland health and issues)