Prescribed grazing that meets the needs of soil and plants as well as animals and their owners is the single most important practice to improve the health and productivity of our grazing land resources. West-wide, intensive prescribed grazing management has demonstrated improvements in land health and biological diversity, while set-stocked, extensively grazed lands and lands under long-term rest from grazing have not recovered from degradation or deteriorated further.
Poorly managed grazing results in both heavily grazed and ungrazed patches within a pasture, even if the stocking rate is low. Animals return to previously grazed patches, attracted by plant re-growth when the plants are most susceptible to damage, creating expanding patches of deteriorating plant species composition, soil surface condition, and hydrologic function. Prescribed grazing breaks this cycle with short grazing periods and high stocking density, encouraging livestock to consume a higher proportion of plants in a pasture, and then removing the livestock until the grazed plants have recovered.
Herding is the tool that makes prescribed grazing technically and economically feasible, by allowing a few individuals to herd large groups of livestock over long distances and rough terrain, and place them - without fencing. This means that stock can be moved off riparian areas, breaking the cycle of repeated grazing of preferred plants, improving distribution, and facilitating restoration treatments.
Participants in a recent workshop held by Colorado's Middle Park Conservation District learned the basic techniques of herding at Blue Valley Ranch, under the backdrop of the
craggy, snow-capped peaks known as the Eagle's Nest.
After a welcome by District Manager Bonnie Koblitz, the morning began with my presentation on "Prescribed Grazing for Rangeland Health." This culminated in an energetic discussion of adaptive grazing management, probably fueled
by the black magic of our local Big Shooter Coffee.
"Thank you so much - I realized today that I could make some changes to improve my grass management," said Marianne Sasak of Steamboat Springs.
"I've always wondered if you could accomplish multiple-pasture prescribed grazing on extensive range without extensive fences," I concluded, "and that is why we have Guy Glosson here today to teach us about low-stress livestock handling, the basic techniques of herding." Glosson, manager of the award-winning Mesquite Grove Ranch near Snyder, Texas, and a certified educator in Holistic Management, learned directly from stockmanship guru Bud Williams.
After admitting that there might be nothing crazier than teaching a bunch of cowboys to handle livestock, Glosson spent the next two days doing exactly that. Participants found that low-stress livestock handling is not a kinder, gentler version of what they were already familiar with, but a new concept that requires the herder to be in a different position relative to the herd. Participants had to suspend their knowledge of driving the herd from behind in order to learn to work the lead animals from the side. By applying pressure and then releasing it at the right time, herders inspire the animals to want to go where the herders want them to go, and then let them go, or stay, there.
"This is fascinating!" said Tim Robertson, livestock foreman at Blue Valley Ranch, after quietly weaving the herd through a set of cones. Participants then walked the cattle across a pasture and through a gate, pressuring them when they slowed and releasing the pressure as they moved in the desired direction.
Stockmanship is vitally important because prescribed grazing, as usually implemented, requires more fencing (and permanent fence is often cost-prohibitive); and because prescribed grazing requires a lot more handling and moving of livestock, which - with conventional handling techniques - tends to require more labor and management, and tends to cause stress to the animals and people.
A presentation on a successful application of these techniques, "Livestock Herding in the West Elk Mountains" by Dave Bradford, of the Gunnison National Forest, and John Kossler, representing the West Elk Livestock Association, tied the hands-on practice in the small paddock to how it is used on a large landscape scale. The permittees on this pooled allotment have gotten an extra 30 days of grazing since they started herding and doing vegetation treatments with their cattle, said Bradford, and all of his allotments now use some form of multiple-pasture grazing management.
The Colorado Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative funded the workshop. "We have funded a lot of workshops, but this one was the most out-of-the-box," said Dan Nosal, rangeland management specialist and Colorado GLCI coordinator. He and fellow Colorado GLCI representative Ben Berlinger tag-teamed with me and Glosson to reiterate the basic concepts of prescribed grazing throughout the workshop.
The workshop was hosted by Blue Valley Ranch, winner of the Colorado Conservationist of the Year award, and the employees who do the bulk of the livestock management all attended the workshop. John Kossler, the ranch's natural resources manager, and a conservation district board member, emphasized that the ranch's intention to immediately implement low-stress livestock handling was a vital component of the project. The workshop is just the first phase in a longer-term project demonstrating prescribed grazing best management practices for rangeland health. We expect that Blue Valley Ranch will be hosting a tour in another year or two to demonstrate how they have used herding to change patterns of grazing use on the landscape, and we plan to submit a proposal to the Colorado GLCI to fund it, said Koblitz.