Grazing Cattle For Best Of Both Worlds

Grazing Cattle For Best Of Both Worlds

Project at Whiterock Conservancy at Coon Rapids is learning how native grasslands can be grazed to provide both environmental and nutritional benefits.

Managers at Whiterock Conservancy at Coon Rapids in western Iowa are learning how native grasslands can provide both environmental benefits and nutritional cattle grazing. The project received a competitive grant in 2009 from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture's Ecology Initiative, and is featured in a new video, "Grazing Native Grasslands at Whiterock."

The project team will provide landowners and cattle producers with information about the ebb and flow of nutrient availability in prairies, savannahs and warm-season grasslands by creating a Grazing Native Grasslands Calendar. The calendar will align nutritional data with the grazing needs of cattle herds and effects on the environment. Tolif Hunt, executive director of Whiterock Conservancy, leads the project.

Hunt hopes to development a management plan for grazing restored native grasslands that will help create viable options for rural Iowa. He said the work helps forge partnerships between conservation organizations, cattle producers and government agencies. "This project already has had that impact," he said. "We're collectively looking at grasslands as an endangered resource that we all have a stake in."

Cattle grazing on native grasslands forges beneficial partnerships

In the Midwest, vast grasslands developed with the help of fires and grazing by buffalo and elk. Today, the few remaining protected or restored grasslands in Iowa often lack the disturbances that once kept them healthy. Managed properly, cattle can help return beneficial disturbance to a landscape. In one example, the landowner might manage cattle so they selectively graze for cool-season grasses, creating more room for wildflowers to flourish.

"We understand that grazing is a really important part of the historic disturbance regime of these restored grasslands," says Elizabeth Hill, a former Whiterock Conservancy ecologist who is now pursuing her master's degree at the University of South Dakota. "We want to be able to integrate the grazing component into our prairie lands purely for the function of it."

To gather data about the nutritional quality and bulk quantity of forage, researchers collect biweekly samples from three types of grassland—reconstructed prairie, restored oak savanna, and grassland dominated by warm-season grasses. They sort the vegetation into various types, such as warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses, sedges and legumes, to calculate nutrient availability at different times of year.

Results so far indicate native grasslands offer good grazing opportunities

Preliminary results suggest that native grasslands offer good grazing opportunities. That might make grasslands an economically viable option for landowners, providing a financial return while protecting environmental benefits such as improved soil health and wildlife habitat.  "We're all going to lose if we lose out to eight-dollar corn," Hunt says.

In the final stage of the project, researchers will develop a Prescribed Grazing Plan and put it into practice at Whiterock Conservancy. A 5,400-acre nonprofit land trust in west-central Iowa, Whiterock Conservancy is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Leopold Center, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Cattlemen's Association, SOAR, Creating Great Places, and Iowa Environmental Council.

Partners on this research include Mary Wiedenhoeft, associate professor in agronomy at Iowa State University; Joe Sellers, ISU Extension, Pat Corey, tenant and cattle producer; and Rachael Odhe, ISU graduate student. Watch the video at www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/on-the-ground/grazing-native-grasslands-whiterock, or on Iowa State's channels at iTunesU and YouTubeU.

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