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More Cows + Confusion and Disarray = Better Landscapes and an Improved Bottom-line

By   /  March 31, 2014  /  3 Comments

It isn’t easy managing cattle to rehabilitate landscapes because mother nature is chaotic. Here are Bob Budd’s philosophies on making it work.

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Bob Budd is now Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

Bob Budd is now Executive Director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

If you’ve heard of Bob Budd, it’s likely because of his work managing The Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch outside of Lander, Wyoming.  There, Bob used his education in Range Management and  Agricultural Business and Animal Science, along with his training in Holistic Resource Management to heal riparian areas and rangelands and create healthy wildlife habitat while also improving economic production on a working cattle ranch.  Here we excerpt his paper Livestock, Wildlife, Plants and Landscapes: Putting It All Together (Lessons from Red Canyon Ranch)” to share some of his lessons learned.

To develop land management strategies that will lead to sound ecology, economy, and culture, it is important to understand the landscape-scale processes that shaped the history of any given habitat or set of habitats. Areas that evolved with a history of large animal grazing, fire, and flood will lead us to different strategies than those employed in areas that may have evolved under different circumstances. It is equally important to visualize the types of animals that may have coevolved with the systems in which we now live. By doing both, it may be possible to adapt operations to the existing natural landscape, or “retrofit” our operations to a more natural setting.

We must first be able to accept the fact that we truly know very little about all of the “pieces and parts” of a functioning ecosystem; and that some of our “conventional wisdom” may be flawed.

Joy in Failure

A view of the Red Canyon Ranch area outside Lander, Wyoming

A view of the Red Canyon Ranch area outside Lander, Wyoming

To be successful, there is an immediate need for acceptance of, or better yet, excitement for, mistakes. A prime challenge we face in contemporary society is a quest for perfection, which is admirable. However, as all of us who work with natural resources and living creatures know, there is no such thing as perfection. There is elegance, wonder, incredible complexity, and stark simplicity, and over time, infinite interactions. The time frame of natural systems may be geologic. Therefore, it is not entirely possible for us to overlay our short generational lives on the duration of an ecosystem. Attempting to overlay perfection on nature is defeating and leads to a fear of failure, which clouds our ability to think creatively. We become unwilling to be innovative and find new (or old) ways of managing. In our quest for perfection, we never leave the box. Call it paralysis by analysis – it is a serious malady. Thus, if we want to succeed, the most important commodities we can bring to resource management are an open mind, a true concern for other people’s values and needs, and a willingness to fail and learn from the effort.

Dietary Overlap

Photo by Kathy Voth

Photo by Kathy Voth

It might be worthwhile to follow some of the rationale which led to our successes and failures at Red Canyon Ranch over the past five years. The first step was to understand that our natural system evolved with grazing, browsing and other natural relationships. Second we tried to ascertain how those relationships might have worked. Our working theory did not revolve around bison; but rather, bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, and antelope. In analyzing dietary overlaps, cattle were the domestic animal that best fit the mix because they had a strong dietary similarity with elk and bighorn sheep; which were the dominant species in the landscape a few centuries ago. While it helped to consider the bison as an occasional user of the area, we viewed elk and bighorns as the primary native species in the system.

Removal of Fire

Fire in front range area just west of Loveland, CO.  Photo by Kathy Voth

Fire in front range area just west of Loveland, CO. Photo by Kathy Voth

Complete removal of fire from the system shaped our current environment, leading us to wonder what the dynamics of the system might have been. It is easy todocument the encroachment of conifers and juniper in the absence of fire, and the subsequent loss of aspen and other deciduous trees and shrubs. This is further substantiated by nearly unilateral agreement by community elders that “there used to be more water in the old days.” These are significant changes to the natural processes that shaped our environment. Another indicator of what happened in our system is the present performance and behavior of wildlife species. Elk and whitetail populations are exploding throughout the region, while mule deer and sage grouse are declining, or at best, holding their own. Mule deer and sage grouse appear to need some level of disturbance and a lower successional level that is maintained by both grazing and fire. Consequently, plant and animal indicators pointed simultaneously to the loss of two major habitat modifiers:  grazing and fire.

One of the basic premises guiding our grazing program is the need to look at the whole system, including natural processes, and ecological and cultural values. That does not imply a “natural regulation” theory; we work, live, and draw a living from a managed environment. Instead, it moves us toward a concept of sustainability. The tools we believe will lead to the desired result include management of: stocking rates, stock density, duration of grazing, season of use, type of animal, rest, and animal behavior. Each of these can be used to address the two most serious concerns relative to the long-term health of the rangeland resource; entropy and succession.

Less Is Not More

Our management approach at Red Canyon Ranch assumes that we cannot manage for landscape integrity with fewer animals, for economic reasons certainly, and possibly, for other reasons as well. In attempting to mimic natural interactions between grazing animals, wildlife habitats, and economic realities, we have to tease out some of the basic premises of the system, as follows:

1. Animals are a renewable source of carbon, nitrogen, and energy to natural systems.

2. Natural systems must have varying levels of disturbance, at differing scales, at different times – midseral is neither attainable nor the “desired” condition unless it is applied at a landscape scale.

3. All disturbances are not created equal.

4. Treatment radically different from natural disturbance will advance entropy. We should be very careful when we select stocking rates, use spring fire, herbicides, and other treatments which may radically alter the processes we are trying to mimic.

dscn06195. Disturbance need not always be followed by rest.

6. Confusion and disarray are the norm, not the exception, and should be the goal instead of being regarded as a challenge.

7. Continuous use of a treatment leads to entropy, whether it is same-season grazing, burning the same area every year, complete rest over time, or other excessive compulsive disorders of natural resource management.

8. Short-term costs to change follow the same path as succession, with sudden response followed by longer term trends. This is not something that will pay immediate economic or ecological returns.

9. Management which mimics or includes a natural process is the goal, even if that does not rest well with us intellectually. An example may be the notion that we should rest for two years after prescribed fire.

10. Domestic animals (including bison) are a tool which MUST be used to move succession, generate energy, create and maintain habitats for wildlife, and shape ecosystem function. Human management of animals ultimately determines parameters that can be addressed. It is human creativity, that is most severely depressed at this point in time.

How Much Forage Is There?

Cows climb side hill to graze.  Photo by Kathy Voth

Cows climb side hill to graze. Photo by Kathy Voth

One of the primary tenets of our management program is the notion that there is a whole lot more forage out there than we have been using. To date, I have not found many operations where that is not true. In fact, federal agencies have long characterized some ranges as “unsuitable” for grazing, based on such criteria as slope, distance from water, and cover. I am not criticizing the agencies here – the cattle they were accustomed to were largely incapable of using certain ranges; and, the practice of reducing numbers to achieve ecological objectives was so institutionalized that it became the norm. Therefore, stock density is not a tool available to alter animal behavior.

Given the general fact that the forage is there, the question becomes, how can we better use the landscape? There are several means to improve animal distribution from simple water distribution and fencing to those that capitalize on the animals themselves. At Red Canyon, our CRM group was adamant that fences were not the answer, but of primary concern because they impede migratory wildlife. A second concern was the added cost of fence maintenance and construction. Water is a constant factor, but not the only answer; again, cost is a major hurdle.

The three key elements we looked at were time (duration of grazing), timing (season of use), and stock density. By decreasing time, constantly changing season of use, and maintaining large numbers of livestock, we have seen some radical shifts in both production and forage composition. We added rest to the mix three years ago. After five years, the results are: increased animal numbers and weaning weights; full and complete rest of land (as much as 5,000 acres per year); increased hay and irrigated forage; and, reduced death loss from all causes. Keep this trendline moving upward is our objective; though only time will tell. All indications are that we can maintain these trends without substantial cost.

The Glory of Confusion

In natural systems, disturbance and confusion are the rule, not the exception. This has been captured in much of this discussion, but should be stated overtly and underscored. Our management at Red Canyon Ranch is predicated on the notion that plant communities abhor a vacuum; and in that vacuum energy, will be diminished and monocultures advanced. Grazing management should use confusion as a basis, a rule or maxim. A plant community in constant flux should armor itself in many ways, including different species’ adaptations to herbivory. Examples are numerous, in all types of systems, although response times are highly variable.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

3 Comments

  1. Ben Berlinger says:

    Thank you Kathy for publishing this exerpt from Bob’s paper. What a joy to read about such a refreshingly adaptive philosopy of natural resouce management! Keep up the excellent work…!

    • Dan Nosal says:

      I particularly liked Bob’s comment about federal agencies characterizing some ranges as “unsuitable” for grazing because of slope and distance from water. Essentially we are succumbing to the notion that animals need to be pampered and cannot hustle to get their groceries, thereby reducing the opportunity for increased stock density and disturbance.

      • Andrew says:

        This is correct, Dan. When we were herding cattle in Africa, we used only native African Sanga breeds and crosses, they regularly grazed three days from water without any distress, matching the genetics with the environment and management style is key to successful holistic management.

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