For almost 30 years the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has paid farmers and ranchers to protect environmentally sensitive land by taking it out of production. But leaving unhealthy lands idle may actually prevent them from regenerating optimally. Instead, Washington State University Extension Educator Steve Van Vleet has found, allowing cattle to graze on poor grassland may be just what it needs to recuperate, as long as the land is properly managed.
Along with providing an environmental service, ranchers who properly manage and graze cattle on marginal lands have access to more acres of healthy forage, and thus the potential to earn more. Three ranchers who worked with Van Vleet to re-vegetate and graze 295 acres of degraded land each earned an additional $1,500 to $2,000 by adding eight to 10 animals to their herds.
In a two-year study, Van Vleet and a team of researchers, ranchers and environmental groups evaluated the effects that mob grazing and reseeding with native species have on the health of grasses and species diversity.
The research took place on the state-owned Dalles Mountain Ranch. Jim Sizemore, one of the ranchers who manages the grazing there, said “vegetation [on the ranch] was changing for the worse. They were losing wild flowers, diversity and plant communities. They were getting undesirable invasives.” He continued, “The land needed an impact of some kind and we wanted the hoof-action of the livestock to do the impact.”
Just a week into the project, it was obvious the landscape was improving.
After evaluating the rangeland management practices, researchers found perennial grass populations either stayed the same or increased, and annual grasses, which are less favorable, decreased or stayed the same. Further, forage cover and forbs increased, and litter—dead plant matter that accumulates and can prevent beneficial plants from growing—decreased.
Van Vleet found that the grazed forage on the ranch was more productive and had a higher protein content than non-foraged land, which meant the land could hold more cattle, and that those animals could gain more weight on forage instead of hay. Groups that originally did not see cattle as a method for conservation quickly saw the benefits they bring to the land, and helped move the project forward. Van Vleet formed lasting partnerships with environmentalists such as the Native Plant Society and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, in addition to state officials. “We all had certain objectives, but we came together to do what’s best for the ecosystem,” Van Vleet said.
During the project, the team held workshops that trained 230 ranchers, educators and agriculture professionals on rangeland revitalization and management strategies. And five ranchers are currently working with Van Vleet to convert their already expired CRP land to rangeland so that this project will have guided 7695 acres into managed grazing.
For his efforts, Van Vleet was one of four winners of the 2013 Search for Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture Award. The award, sponsored by SARE and the National Association of County Agricultural Agents, recognizes excellence in the development and implementation of educational programs on sustainable management practices.
Along with improvements in production and stewardship, the team saw a benefit to the community. Van Vleet estimates that 20 percent more visitors are coming to enjoy the natural beauty of the Dalles Mountain Ranch now that the flora and fauna there have begun to regenerate.