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Finding Credence in a Clearcut Revival – Converting a Dying Forest Into Grazing Land

By   /  March 2, 2020  /  3 Comments

In addition to being an article about forest conversion, this is also an example of looking at the resources we manage, paying attention to a site’s potential, and considering what is best for our operations. We hope it inspires you to look around with new eyes.

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In this 2:27 video, John describes this winter’s project: converting a dying forest into pastures. Check out the video and then read on for the rest of the story.

Forty years ago I came home from college to find that my farther had built a new fence on the southern edge of the home place, slicing off ten acres of rough grassland and brush. Next, he planted that area to trees, one half to Douglas fir and the other half Ponderosa pine. I wasn’t too surprised by this, as my dad was fascinated with forestry and this was a pretty difficult patch of pasture anyway. Besides, I had plenty of other things to worry about: girls, etc. I’m sure you understand.

Tree dying from the top down.

Fast forward thirty-five years and I found myself leading a ranch tour that included a walk through that stand of trees, and I remember the negative reaction of some folks when I mentioned that the forest didn’t look very healthy, and that I could see that we would need to harvest before too long.

“But the trees are so beautiful! Why would you cut them down?”

“Because they are getting ready to die.”

Next, sad faces and a discussion about the characteristics of healthy trees and not-so-healthy ones. Generally speaking, conifer trees (trees with needles, such as firs and pines) grow a new “leader” and a new “whorl” of limbs each year. The length of the leader says a lot about how fast the tree is growing, and rate of growth is a primary indicator of health. In really good soil and growing conditions, a new Doug fir leader might be two or even three feet tall. Over the past few years, the trees in question had been reduced to leaders of only a few inches, and now some of those were turning brown. When the top of a tree is brown instead of green, the entire tree will soon be dead. I don’t know if trees suffer, but when an entire stand of trees begin to decline it’s time to make a decision: harvest the trees or stand by and watch them

Over the past five years or so our weather has gotten hotter and drier. One result of this has been a shorter growing season for the forests: shorter leaders, less growth, and individual trees in thinly-soiled sites dying. This entire stand was dying, due to the nature of the soil: clay that was wet in the winter, dry in the summer, and not very deep. And even though these trees were only forty years old, it was time to make a decision. This past winter we elected to harvest the trees before they started to fall down on their own.

The next question was, what to do with that land after the harvest? Forty years is a relatively short for cycle trees; shorter than I want, anyway, because it means a tremendous physical/biological disruption at the site every harvest. In addition, if our current climate/weather pattern continues, that site (the soil, aspect, slope) will tend toward an even shorter cycle. It was time to consider other alternatives.

Converting a forest into a pasture is not for the faint of heart. The pioneers did it two hundred years ago, but most of them died young after a few decades of brutal effort. Luckily, we have mechanical advantages that our forefathers lacked. First, the trees would need to be removed, the mess cleaned up, the land planted, and finally, managed as a pasture. Experience told me that conversions like this require some serious degree of input, and the proper place to spend the effort is at the beginning.

We began by looking for a logger that had the proper equipment. We found a fellow with a machine that could cut the trees off nearly at ground level. Most of the stumps on this new “pasture” are only a few inches tall, meaning we will be able to drive right over them when we need to.

Tigercat Feller Buncher. Photo courtesy of Tigercat.

 

Next, we brought in a “macerator”, a machine that looks something like a street sweeper on steroids. The rotating drum has large solid steel teeth that grind up limbs and brush, then mix the debris into the top horizon of soil. In the end, the results are not at all like a classic seed bed, but there is enough bare dirt showing to allow some seed to find purchase. I hope so, at least.

A Few Problems

Invaders

Himalayan Blackberries! Our part of the world is highly infested by this Asian invasive plant with beautiful foliage, wonderfully sweet, juicy berries, and horrible thorns. It is also highly aggressive, typically covering sites like this completely. Without control, Himalayans quickly dominated the logging site in the few months between logging and seeding. I was able to hire a farmer friend to boom spray the entire site with a special cocktail of broadleaf herbicides, and the results were very encouraging. I suspect we will need to do quite a bit of maintenance over the next few years too. These plants are a difficult foe.

Results of chemical control of blackberry. The brown leaves you see are all blackberry.

Choosing What to Plant

The goal here is to establish a permanent pasture on a low pH, low nutrient, clay soil. In my experience, the species that will survive here will be deep-rooted Fescue, Meadow Foxtail, and a bunch of local natives. We selected a variety of Fescue called Brutus and seeded at an extraordinarily high rate of 50 pounds per acre. My thinking here is that survival will be limited, so a huge seeding rate will be helpful. Also, in relation to the high cost of site prep, grass seed was a minor cost in this project. We did not plant any annuals, as I believe they would out-compete the fescue seedlings for water very early in the growing season. Because I suspect this site will require additional herbicide applications, I elected not to plant any legumes or broadleaf forbs of any kind. Maybe we’ll add some in a later application, or perhaps we can find a way to feed some hay on this site down the road. So, the seeding plan was simple: pour on the fescue and hope for the best.

Wildlife Issues

Photo by Ken Thomas

In addition to all of the other difficulties this site brings, I expect a serious challenge from one of our favorite species: wild turkeys. Last year I hand-seeded a small area that had been disturbed by a construction project. A few days later, I watched in horror as a huge mob of turkeys marched back and forth across the site, pecking away at my grass seed. In the end, enough seed escaped to make a fine stand, so I’m hoping the same thing happens at the forest conversion site. Praying, actually.

Expectations

I think there will be plenty of fescue seed to form a new pasture sod at this site, but I doubt it will thrive. I also think it will look like a huge weed patch, probably three or four-feet of thistles and broadleaf weeds and a large population of wild grass, too. I expect to drive past this “pasture” all summer without even glancing out the window. Next fall, I’ll spend some time on hands and knees, searching for fescue seedlings. The initial grazing of this pasture will happen in the summer of 2021.

The Future

This is, at best, a difficult project. The cost of converting a forest to pasture land is very high. In the end, I feel like we are adapting to the reality of the changing conditions we live in. This site could likely support a short-term forestry cycle, perhaps using a non-commercial species like White Cedar, but that’s not a very attractive option. In five years or so I’ll know if we made the right decision. I feel like we have to keep going forward, even if the trail is difficult. In the meantime, please wish me luck, and…

Happy Grazing!

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About the author

John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

3 Comments

  1. Roger Stauss says:

    Hello John,

    Are you not concerned that using the herbicide cocktail will taint your soil? And years later showing up in your harvest?

    We use a combination of rotational grazing , silviculture, soil PH, and bush hogging to help maintain and expand our pastures. Frost seeding works pretty well too. We’re in Vermont though, with a wet climate…and our turkey’s look really small compared to yours…(insert smiley face)

    I wish you all the best,

    Roger Stauss

    • John Marble says:

      Hi Roger. Please excuse my slothfulness in replying.

      I think your question and concern are valid. I have no real way of knowing the long-term effect of using herbicides on soil.

      Over the past couple of decades I have worked on several large riparian restoration projects that involved removing/controlling invasive plants, Himalayans in particular. The experts in that field constantly struggle with the idea of using chemicals as a part of the process. In the end, I think it’s fair to say I have yet to see a successful restoration project that did not include at least some use of chemicals. Part of it is economics: my spray project expense was about $350. A single pass with a tractor and bush hog might have cost about one-half that much, but would need to be completed several times…every year, forever. And I don’t believe I could actually convince my contractor to beat his equipment up on a site like this. Everything is a compromise, it seems.

      I am interested in using cattle as part of the ongoing battle, and I’m working on that with my “Cows Eat Weeds” friend, Kathy Voth.

      Thanks for writing,
      John

  2. emily macdonald says:

    Really instructive article John. I like how you describe your decision making process, your uncertainty at times, and the difficulties encountered. This is real! Nothing is perfect. I do wish you good luck and would like to hear updates on the project.

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