Ranchers Benefit from Conservation Knowledge
By Mary Jelf, Leadville Today Contributor
Ranchers, small landowners, and Rockies Rock school kids recently attended an educational pasture walk sponsored by the Lake County Conservation District and hosted at the ranches of Mary Smith and Ray and Joan Dawson.
Bill Gardiner and Josh Tashiro from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) facilitated the tours and discussion. At the NRCS, their job is to work with private landowners on plans to create conditions for optimal harmony between plants, animals, and the goals of the landowner. This form of land management involves intentional rotation of grazing animals on small parts of a larger pasture system. The scheduling controls the disruption of the natural growing of the plants and allows the plants time to regrow and flourish before the next grazing period. Animals are used as the harvesting system to do the kind of work needed, exactly when and where it is wanted by the landowner. The advantage of using animals for this purpose is that they end up well fed with just a fence and maybe a whistle, while machines require gas, maintenance, and paid workers to operate them.
Pasture management plans begin with going to the fields and finding out what’s there. A plant species list is compiled, and soil depth and composition are determined. After this inventory, questions are asked to determine what has taken place to create the conditions for those plants to grow in that way. Then there are conversations to understand the owner’s time, knowledge, lifestyle, and desires for the land. Finally, a plan can be made to optimize the natural processes of growth with all of those factors in mind.
Gardiner cautioned against using the word “weed” when discussing any particular plant, because people tend to use that word to name anything they don’t want. Assigning some plants as “good” and others as “bad” is just philosophical, depending on what someone wants to see or what animals want to eat. Tashiro also cautioned on removing any particular plant from a system based on a single characteristic, without understanding how that plant works with the others in the system. For instance, some plants might not be highly palatable for animals, but may help with water infiltration or prevent soil erosion. Removing everything initially thought of as a “weed” could have unforeseen consequences. The functioning of the pasture system as a whole is more important that any one piece, such as a particular plant species. It is more useful to work toward conditions that you do want, rather than working to eliminate what you do not.
Participants were able to learn about these practices first-hand from walking the ranches with the owners and the conservationists. On Mary Smith’s ranch, she explained that there are three different pasture areas. Currently four horses and four burros graze in two of the three areas. As the group walked the land (and were reminded to stay away from the burros), they noticed differences in the three pastures. They determined which differences were related to climate factors like moisture, which were related to grazing, and which were related to the work Smith had done in clearing out areas formerly full of debris. Gardiner explained that since only a few animals had range over a large area with a wide variety of plants, the animals could be very picky about eating only their favorite plants for most of the time they were there. As the “desirable” plants were eaten down, other plants flourished and made it harder for the desirable plants to regrow well. Smith learned that by dividing each pasture into even smaller plots and grazing animals on the smaller plots for shorter periods of time before moving them, animals would have to eat down a wider variety of plants and the whole system would regrow differently when the animals were moved.
In comparison, the Dawson Ranch is mostly left to grow on its own until cutting time. There is also a smaller section where three horses graze for a few months in the summer. Standing on the fence line between two areas, it was striking to see that the plants on the untouched side were taller and more expressed, and that there were more different kinds of species on the grazed side. As the curious horses wandered over to the group, participants watched them graze their favorite grasses from in between the other species, which apparently were able to take hold from the continued mowing down of the tastier grasses. Mr. Dawson was interested in the idea of dividing the grazing portion of his land into even smaller parcels and limiting the time animals spent in each area to see how that would affect regrowth and variety of species.
The services the NRCS offers to land owners are free, and can even include financial assistance in purchasing fencing necessary to implement the plan. More about their work can be found at their website, www.co.nrcs.usda.gov.
LT Contributor Mary Jelf practices living joyously in the high country. She relies upon beginner’s luck and the kindness of strangers. Some days she turns thoughts into words to share to make the world a better place.