by Tamara Scully
Pasture, which typically contains less than a half-dozen primary plant species, can be seeded and planted, and can be considered a type of crop land. Grazing management increases the harvest efficiency of the pasture. Rangeland, however, consists of native grass, shrub or savannah which is not typically fertilized or planted. It contains upwards of 100 species, and is managed via natural ecological events, such as fire or wildlife grazing.
Livestock can graze rangelands or pasture, but a rangeland system ‘may never recover’ from improper livestock management, while a pasture can undergo restoration. The risk of improper management, from a conservation standpoint, is much more significant on rangeland. Jess Jackson, Jr., of the Natural Resources Conservation Service emphasized the differences during a webinar presentation, Grazing System Designs for Non-traditional Livestock.
Aside from the potential irreversible damage that an improper grazing regime can have on rangeland, properly designed and managed grazing systems can improve soil health, water quality, pollinator and wildlife habitat and can help producers meet conservation goals. They can also increase farm profitability.
“If we’re doing things right, we really can have more wildlife, more pollinating, clean water, soil health and all of those other benefits,” Jackson said, while helping to diversify and increase salable per acre production for the farm.
Alternative livestock grazing systems are “a matter of perspective,” Jackson said. “What is normal in one part of the United States may be really unusual in a different part.” Alternative grazing systems involve, “thinking outside the box, looking at creative opportunities,” Jackson said. Grazing systems alternatives can often help address specific conservation concerns on the farm. Using goats to graze invasive species, such as autumn olive or Canada thistle, or to control poison ivy, is a biologically-friendly approach which by-passes the need to use herbicides. But the grazing system has to both match the needs, goals and abilities of the farmer, as well as match the conservation concerns.
While the normal response when a livestock producer needs more profit from the land is to maximize the number of animals in the herd, exceeding the land’s carrying capacity creates more problems. Adding a different species to the mix can result in better conservation, and increase farm profits. A well-designed system will enhance the farm economics and the land ecology, adding resilience to both.
An alternative system can include either unusual livestock — such as caribou, elk, or musk ox; mixed-species ‘flerds’; or certain ways of managing grazing. Utilizing herding animals, invisible fencing systems, temporary fencing, ultra-high density grazing, or raising a certain class of animals within a species, such as calves or bulls, are all examples of the forms an alternative grazing operations may take.
No matter what form an alternative grazing system takes, its goal is to address resource concerns without causing harmful unintended consequences. Changing marginal land from field crops to pasture, and adding appropriate livestock, can eliminate environmental concerns, increase wildlife habitat, and add an income stream with reduced input costs. Growing saplings in a pasture, by utilizing temporary fencing to protect trees from browsing until they are established, or grazing multi-species on the same land, allows two income streams from the same resources.
Systems need to be feasible for the land, with ready markets for products produced. The common denominator in any well-designed, successful alternative livestock system is a ready, willing and able manager. “You shouldn’t be working with someone who’s a poor manager to do this,” Jackson said of alternative grazing systems.
Examples and Options
Adding poultry to a cattle grazing system is an example of one type of grazing option. Laying hens which follow behind a cattle herd, grazing the same pasture three days later, can decrease the parasite load in the pasture, enhance fertility, and add an income-earning egg business to the farm. This can be implemented without much infrastructure required, Jackson said.
Designing an intensively-managed rotational grazing system for multi-species use typically requires temporary fencing, a watering system appropriate for each species, corrals that meet the management needs of each species, appropriate shelter, predator control, and the ability to separate species or class of animals when needed, such as when birthing.
Various livestock have specific needs. For example, goats and sheep will not leave the herd and travel to water. A system where water is close and accessible to multiple animals at once is needed. Cows, on the other hand, are willing to travel a bit to water, and to do so independently, Jackson said.
White-tailed deer as an alternative livestock will require fencing to keep wild deer herds out, due to disease concerns. Water will have to be kept inaccessible to birds, also due to disease risk. Full feed encourages antler growth, and rotating females but not males can decrease fighting within the deer herd. A system with areas of brush integrated into pasture meets the animals’ needs, and can provide recreational opportunities for hunting, as well as grazing opportunities for cattle. “Deer are browsers, not grazers,” Jackson said, and that behavior should be addressed in the system’s design.
No matter what livestock is being raised, “rest is key. You have to have enough rest to allow the vegetation to grow back,” Jackson said.