Deft management is key to effective grazing practices

Doug Warnock


For the Capital Press

There has been much rhetoric in recent years about grazing livestock being harmful to public lands, but if harm is done, its due to human failing. The presence of livestock on the land and its impact on the environment is totally dependent upon the humans in charge. When properly managed, grazing animals are a definite and proven asset to the land and the ecosystem.

Before the settlers changed the wide-open spaces that they found, large herds of grazing animals lived on the natural grasslands and were a part of a wonderfully functioning ecosystem. The herds were bunched together to protect themselves from predators, which followed the herd and preyed on the younger and weaker members.

The herd would graze the grass down evenly and keep moving across the landscape. Due to the large number in the herd and their deposition of dung and urine as they grazed, they didn't stay long in an area but kept moving. They didn't return to an area until the grass had fully regrown from the last grazing. This even harvesting of the grass plants, deposition of natural fertilizer and time for plant regrowth resulted in a vigorous, healthy plant community, one in which the ecosystem processes functioned effectively.

As humans moved in with their livestock, they took advantage of the abundant grass that existed. Some were good stewards and managed their herds with the benefit of the grassland in mind. Others allowed the animals to stay too long in areas and the plants were overgrazed.

The grazing animal is one of many tools that managers have available. When managed properly, the grazing animal is a valuable and productive tool in keeping the land healthy. When managed poorly, as some animals have been in the past, they can do harm.

The key to the impact that grazing animals have on the land is related to the time that they have access to any particular plant and the time that the plant has to regrow before the animals return. The improved grazing management approaches that are becoming popular are attempts to simulate the effective natural system that used to be in place. Cross fencing to divide the grazing area into a greater number of sections aids in managing the time element. This allows the grazier to shorten the time in which plants are exposed to the animal and lengthens the time that plants have to regrow before being grazed again.

On ranches and on public lands where managers have practiced this type of grazing management, the results have been rewarding. Plant communities have improved, becoming more diverse and the grazing season has been lengthened. Forage production has doubled or tripled.

The bottom line is that the entire ecosystem in these areas has become healthier. The soil is covered and protected and is full of a greater number of soil organisms, water infiltration is improved and erosion is greatly reduced.

The grazing animal is a tool and, when properly managed, can be a valuable means of keeping the land healthy and productive.

Doug Warnock, retired after 35 years as an extension agent with Washington State University, consults and writes on ranch and farm management.

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