You’ll run across arguments saying our farmlands would be put to better use raising food crops for people instead of forage crops for cattle. Maybe so – back east.
But Wyoming’s remaining rangeland, its prairie grasslands and shrublands, is not suited to raising crops. We don’t have the water or the soils. But we do grow excellent native forage, originally for buffalo, now for cattle.
And what a great system it is – no fossil fuels required to harvest that forage – the animals do it for you! On top of that, good range management is good for birds.
However, grassland birds were identified as the group having declined the most in the past 48 years, according to www.3billion birds.org.
At a recent Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Dusty Downey, Audubon Rockies’ lead for the organization’s Conservation Ranching initiative, explained part of the problem is grassland conversion. When ranchers can’t make enough on cattle, they might try converting rangeland to cropland or to houses and other infrastructure. With hard work, cropland can be restored someday, but houses are a permanent conversion and wildlife suffers habitat loss.
Eighty-five percent of grasslands and sagebrush steppe is privately owned. So Dusty, raised on, and still living on, a ranch by Devils Tower, and his boss, Alison Holloran, a wildlife biologist, thought reaching out to ranchers about enhancing their operations could benefit both birds and cattle. Offering a financial incentive makes it attractive and might keep land in ranching.
National Audubon picked up the idea and made it a national program. The “Grazed on Audubon Certified Bird Friendly Land” logo can help ranchers get anywhere from 10 to 40 cents per pound more, depending on the market.
Conservation ranching is now popular in Dusty’s Thunder Basin neighborhood where ranchers know him and his family. Through the program, ranchers learn techniques for maximizing production over the long term that also benefit birds and they get help finding funding for ranch improvements. With third-party certification, they earn the privilege of selling their meat at a premium price to people like me who value their commitment.
We also value meat free of hormones and antibiotics, so that is part of the certification. And we appreciate that cows eating grass produce less methane, part of the climate change problem, than if they eat corn.
Dusty said in the past 15 years, grass-fed beef sales have grown 400 percent, from $5 million a year to $2 billion.
Audubon-certified beef is available at Big Hollow Food Coop in Laramie, the Reed Ranch in Douglas, in Colorado, other Western states and online. See https://www.audubon.org/ where-buy-products-raised- audubon-certified-land#.
Grazing prairie looks simple. But grazing management is both art and science.
What does the vegetation need? How is it interacting with weather and grazers? Grassland vegetation needs grazing to stay healthy. Dusty cited a four-year study that showed an ungrazed pasture was not as productive or as diverse as one that had been grazed properly. Grazed plots showed five times more birds, two times more arthropods (food for chicks) and five times more dung beetles (the compost experts) than ungrazed plots.
Grazing grasslands down to bare ground like buffalo does look bad, but in the right context it allows highly nutritious plants to grow that can’t compete otherwise. It also aids bird species that require bare ground or very short grass somewhere in their lifecycle, between courtship and fledging.
My experience with prairie plants in the Habitat Hero demonstration garden at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens showed plants grazed down to ground level by rabbits rebounded the next spring. But you can’t let the rabbits in year-round or the same season year after year.
The gold standard when I was studying range management at the University of Wyoming was rest-rotation grazing. Now it’s producing a changing mosaic of plants by adjusting grazing timing on a multi-year cycle for any given pasture, tailored to the plants there and the rancher’s goals. Laramie County Conservation District helps local landowners figure it out.
For an elegant explanation of the dance between animal and prairie plant, read a recent blog post by Chris Helzer, https://prairieecologist.com/2019/11/13/what-does-habitat-look-like-on-a-ranch/. He is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy-Nebraska.
Chris talks about growing a shifting mosaic of plants that will be more resilient through drought and other extremes. He also said, “Chronic overgrazing can degrade plant communities and reduce habitat quality, but a well-managed ranch can foster healthy wildlife populations while optimizing livestock production.”
Next time you meet a rancher, restaurant owner or grocery store manager, ask them if they’ve heard about Audubon's Conservation Ranching Initiative. Tell them it’s good for birds – and cows.