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A happy marriage for cattle and pastureland

Debbie Gibbs
Special to The Union
Legacy Ranching's goats are able to access areas that may be more challenging for a human, clearing away vegetation in an attempt to reduce fire risk.
Photo submitted by Debbie Gibbs

A debate is raging over cattle grazing. It’s not about fencing or predators; it’s about environmental impact. And the cow is in the crosshairs.

Some environmentalists are calling for a vegan diet, as industrial cattle operations are a major greenhouse gas emitter. But others, like Allan Savory, argue that over history herds of wild creatures have grazed the earth’s grasslands. His dream is to regenerate worn out pastureland through managed grazing that mimics nature.

Fortunately, we have some local experts who are collecting data on the benefits of managed grazing. Last month, the Nevada County Climate Action Now group hosted a presentation by Kelly Weintraub, a biologist for Point Blue Conservation Science, and Rob Thompson, local owner of Legacy Ranching. Point Blue raises its own funding and receives some support from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service to conduct their work in Nevada County and 19 other counties in California. They work with local ranchers like Thompson to collect data.

Most of us envision a ranch as a place where the livestock amble peacefully across a green pasture munching contentedly. Thompson applies a different approach called intensive grazing. Quite simply, his herd is confined with portable electric fencing and moved once the available forage has been eaten and/or trampled into the soil.

When the pasture has received adequate impact, the herd is moved to the next section and does not return to graze the same section for several months to a year.

Every three years, usually from January to March when soils are moist, Weintraub measures the soil carbon content, bulk density (a measure of soil compaction), and water infiltration rate. That spring, she conducts plant surveys at the same locations where soils were sampled. Bird surveys are conducted each year, and the presence or absence of key species are used as indicators of important habitat elements, such as snags.

She shared her graphs showing improvement on the soil in just three years. There is more organic matter, increased carbon sequestration and less compaction. In fact, she points out that a one percent increase in soil organic matter can hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water per acre, an important result for some 63 million acres of parched California grasslands.

Equally impressive are the plant diversity results. She found that the regrowth after intensive grazing had fewer invasive plants and more grasses, forbs (wildflowers) and legumes. It is as if the grazing cattle did the rototilling with their hooves, mixed in all the organic matter and produced topsoil that supported the menu of plant life that the cattle could enjoy in the next round of grazing.

If intensive grazing was adopted on the thousands of acres of currently grazed rangeland – Savory reports that about one-third of the world’s land surface is grassland – the carbon capture results and soil improvements could be dramatic in reducing global warming.

Thompson is a new generation young rancher who tries new approaches that promote environmental improvements. He leases land in many different locations and constantly moves his livestock from place to place, and different sections within each location. He has had animals in a section for as little as five hours and sometimes up to two weeks. It is not leisurely work.

While Thompson initially raised livestock to sell the meat, he confided that the recent demand for sheep and goats to graze vegetation for fire suppression has become more profitable than meat sales.

He now has several contracts to graze his goats and sheep for municipalities like Nevada City and Rocklin. With electric fencing and some well-trained guard dogs, his critters can clear property more efficiently in terrain that is often unforgiving for two-legged workers with weed-trimmers.

Weintraub and Thompson are both passionate and imaginative about the conservation and health of the land, livestock, plants and wildlife. They see land management as a partnership with nature where you sometimes leaving some brush piles for provide habitat and food for critters, or to shelter tree seedlings, and in return enjoy the increased quality of the land.

They are at the forefront in contributing to a body of knowledge on environmentally sound grazing methods that may improve national grasslands, capture carbon and sequester water.

Perhaps, indeed, we can find a balance that can include cows, environment, and people so we can have our “beef and eat it too?”


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