Lots of people talk about the environmental impacts of cattle grazing, but fewer have ever seen firsthand what grazing actually looks like in practice. While cattle are often portrayed as an ecological scourge–grass-eating villains who leave destruction in their wake wherever they roam–with responsible management, the ecological disturbance of grazing can be beneficial to grassland ecosystems and a powerful tool for large-scale land conservation. Kirk Gadzia, a renowned grazing and resource management consultant, argues that grazing is a verb: an action without any inherent “good” or “bad” connotation. The effect that grazing has on an ecosystem depends entirely on the context and how it is used.
In the case of cattle ranching, the effect of grazing depends almost entirely on how the cattle are managed and how that management adapts and responds to changes in the environment. Like almost any ecological phenomenon, the act of grazing is complex, caught up in interconnected processes that occur over spatial and temporal scales exceeding human comprehension. Attempting to make generalized judgments about grazing across ecological zones, management styles, and even animal species is not only irresponsible but nearly impossible.
“We can use grazing for ill in terms of overgrazing land–having continuous use over time–or we can use grazing with recovery periods, which tends to be regenerative for the land,” Gadzia explains. “So you can’t go and look and say, ‘Well there are animals out there grazing: is that good or bad?’ You have to look at the longer-term picture and how that tool is applied. Is it the right kind of grazing or is it just grazing?”
The right kind of grazing is the kind that grassland ecosystems evolved with. Under grazing pressure from herds of ruminant animals who moved across the landscape in response to the threat of predation, the grasses, forbs, sedges, and shrubs that evolved to dominate these fragile, often brittle open spaces have survived because they are adapted to succeed when they are grazed. For many of these plant species, the act of biting and pulling by animals and even contact with the saliva of ruminants is known to stimulate an increased plant growth rate under the right conditions. In addition, the dung and urine left behind acts as a natural fertilizer.
The environment has changed dramatically, however, since the times when these wild herbivores dominated the plains, largely as a result of human activity. Going back to the way things were is no longer a realistic option. Our only choice is to adapt our practices as humans, land managers, and active participants in grassland communities to mimic the natural disturbance regimes under which these landscapes evolved. With planned grazing we can re-make livestock in the image of a wild animal, allowing our cattle to carry out the keystone act of pruning that the great wild herbivores like bison once maintained.
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While this theory is relatively straightforward on paper, it is more difficult to see or directly observe the immediate results of grazing on the land. Especially with the large scale at which the Chico operates, where cattle might graze for just a few days in pastures that are up to 6,000 acres, tangible changes on the land are not always obvious to the naked eye. Luckily, a recent small-scale, off-site prescribed grazing project by Samantha Bradford, one of the Chico’s land managers, offers us a unique chance to clearly see the impacts that grazing can have on a piece of land.
A few weeks ago, we loaded up our horses and all 132 of our weaned Beefmaster bull calves and drove them down to the Clear Springs Ranch, our neighbor’s hay farm. For the next month or so, our young bulls will graze four small paddocks created by Sam with temporary electric fences on some resting hay fields. Grazing the calves at the farm is a mutually-beneficial arrangement, a symbiotic relationship between a rancher and farmer that will simultaneously yield fat yearlings and healthy, more productive soil.
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The trailer door swings open and one by one, some more reluctantly (and some more gracefully) than others, they jump off the trailer. We hold the calves loosely in a group until they are all unloaded, allow them to get settled in for a few minutes, and then trail them to water. This year’s cohort of bull calves are as quiet and gentle as they come, just as they are bred to be, and they immediately get to work grazing.
These hay fields had been cut several times during the last growing season, but there is still plenty of dry, cured forage for the bulls to eat. Almost as soon as they stepped off the trailer, all of the bulls’ heads were down, grazing. Our neighbor was primarily interested in grazing his resting hay fields for fire mitigation. By consuming the dry, standing biomass left behind on the field, the bulls significantly reduce the amount of fuel that could contribute to a grass fire, which is always a concern as the summer approaches. In addition to reducing fuel loads and wildfire risk, the bull calves will increase the health and fertility of the soil, which may ultimately increase the productivity of the hayfield.
Simply by moving around, eating, and defecating, the yearlings are playing an integral role in the nutrient cycle. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that would have remained locked up in dry plant matter are deposited back into the soil as dung and urine–soluble forms that can be further broken down by soil microorganisms and easily reabsorbed by plant roots in the growing season.
Even just by walking around as they graze, which cattle do instinctively, the bulls trample some of the standing feed with their hooves. Though they are not digesting it, their hoof action breaks up plant litter and physically incorporates it into the topsoil, where it can decompose and feed the soil food web with organic material and carbon. A good layer of trampled leaf litter also provides valuable ground cover, protecting the soil from being scorched by the sun, as well as from wind and water erosion.
In the microcosmic ecosystem of each paddock, Sam and the temporary fences are the predators, moving the hungry calves around the same way wild animals might move across a whole valley in a season, leaving vigorous, living soil in their wake. The small scale of Sam’s grazing project makes it all the more clear what the bulls are actually doing to the fields, and the role they are playing in the nutrient cycle and health of the land. Grazing the cattle at a high density in sixty-acre paddocks concentrates and amplifies the impacts of their presence: each paddock will be grazed more uniformly as the bulls are forced to compete with each other to utilize the feed in all areas within the fence, which will also ensure that their nutrient-rich dung and urine will be deposited with greater density and uniformity across the field.
For me, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of how the bull calves impact these small fields is their effortlessness. These young animals, who will go into breeding service as yearlings next summer and eventually as herd sires for our commercial and seed stock cows, are simply doing what they do naturally and instinctively. They spend their days at the farm doing just what bull calves are meant to do: grazing, ambling around, trailing to and from water at their leisure, head-butting, licking each other, and lying down to rest, of course, once they have had had their fill of forage. If only they knew the profound ways in which their daily rituals nourish and give back to the land that feeds them.
Simply by living, by existing as active participants in the land-community, they are able to improve the land–something that humans might only strive for. Beyond being the neighborly thing to do, grazing our young bulls at the farm hopefully may serve as a poignant demonstration–a concise parable–of the potential for well-managed grazing to provide a solution to the environmental challenges we face, from the scale of a single farm field to the whole of our planet that was once covered in grass.