Prescribed herding for rangeland health on the West Terror Allotment
The health of the Western Range depends on how grazing is managed. Progressive rangeland managers are increasingly turning to the ancient art of herding – moving a single large group of animals across the landscape, using low-stress stockmanship – to prevent overuse of preferred areas and allow plants sufficient recovery time before they are grazed again.
A cluster of progressive ranchers are using herding to restore the rangelands of Colorado’s Western Slope, particularly on of the Gunnison National Forest, under the stewardship of Paonia Ranger District rangeland management specialist Dave Bradford.
I recently spent a day with Bradford on the West Terror, one of the grazing allotments he manages. The permittee, the Campbell and Sons Ranch, was gathering their cattle to ship their calves. I was there to learn about the Campbells’ grazing management and herding techniques, methods that have enhanced rangeland health on their allotment as well as the neighboring West Elk allotment, for which both permittees have won the Forest Service’s National Range Management Award, as well as the Excellence in Range Management Award from the Colorado Section of the Society for Range Management.
I threw my saddle on one of the Forest Service’s Missouri Foxtrotters, a friendly black one called “Bugs,” and off we went up West Terror Creek. We found Calvin Campbell and his crew, and a large group of their cattle headed to the corral.
While the Campbells tended the main herd, Bradford and I rode up the mountain, looking for strays hiding in the oak brush. Bradford indicated that the Gambel Oak had been even more impenetrable, offering little forage for livestock or wildlife, but that he and the Campbells had been using concentrated animal impact to open up the brush thickets. Understory production and diversity are increasing; for instance, Bradford showed me where some native needlegrasses, mountain brome and slender wheatgrass were returning to an understory previously dominated by Kentucky bluegrass.
There were dying aspen stands, but dense aspen regeneration in clearcuts. The cuts – like prehistoric fire patterns – had to be large enough that the volume of regeneration would not be overwhelmed by the grazing pressure of elk, deer and cattle. On this allotment there is substantial regeneration, probably because the grazing management does not allow cattle to stay in any one place too long. Still, elk grazing is significant and essentially unmanaged, which was reflected in visibly denser aspen shoots in areas of jackstrawed trunks and branches where there was less elk traffic.
All afternoon it snowed but we didn’t mind – we were doing what we love best, working with animals to harvest the land’s bounty in a regenerative way. We found a few dozen stragglers, started them down through the oak brush, and then eased them down a temporary electric fenceline to the corral.
At the corral, we sorted the calves from the cows, using the low-stress livestock handling method of pressure-and-release. This is not a kinder, gentler version of conventional livestock handling; it requires the herder to be in a different position relative to the herd. The secret is to inspire the animals to want to go where you want them to go, and then let them go there, as if it were their idea all along. This is essential for effective herding because it is what enables the herder to place the herd on an unfenced upland site and have them stay there. Low-stress handling also translates into improved animal health and reproduction: both ecological and economic resilience.
After the calves were shipped, the cows went back on the mountain to go to work applying animal impact to thin out those dense thickets of oak brush. The resulting improvement in the understory vegetation has earned the Campbells and their herd an extra month of fall grazing on their National Forest allotment. Saying goodbye to Campbell and Bradford, I sensed a mutual respect between rancher and rangeland conservationists, born of a long-term dedication to learning how to best manage this land, and to continual improvement in its health.
Some of the Campbell’s calves were bound for Paonia’s Homestead Market, where I bought some Colorado Homestead Ranches natural beef. Topping off the day with a pint of stout and a locally made mutton sausage at Revolution Brewing, I mused that sometimes the new agrarianism looks like the old agrarianism: progressive, and in this case multi-generational, ranchers managing for resilience – so that a working western landscape may be passed on intact to future generations.
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