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Restorative Grazing
Jim Winder1
Due to past and present abuses, many people question the logic of grazing rangelands in the
western United States. Although some lands are certainly unsuited for grazing, it seems foolish to
eliminate a renewable food source when the human population continues to spiral upward. Fuzzy
statistics are often quoted in an attempt to minimalize the significance of western beef production.
It is important to realize that I am able to produce enough beef from 30 sections of land to feed
2000 people for an entire year. The question then is how to manage our rangelands to produce
healthy food while restoring biodiversity.
The single, most important aspect of rangeland management is the attitude of the manager. A
little humility goes a long way. In the past, ranchers tried to mold nature to meet their needs. Today
we must fit our operations within natural systems and manage for biological diversity.
With this increased management scope, it is necessary to go beyond being a rancher and
become a true resource manager. Although we have many excellent people working in the
universities and government agencies, there are very few people who are able to take the science
and apply it effectively to the land. At this level, with thousands of species and billions of
interactions, the complexity pushes us beyond the capabilities of science and into the realm of the
artist. A resource manager must blend theory with an intuitive feel for the land to perfect the art
The first step in active management, is to remove the negative E)ffects of ranching. Much of the
damage caused by livestock grazing is secondary in nature. We must look beyond the cows and
grass and recognize the interdependencies inherent in our ecosystems. I avoid grazing my riparian
areas in the growing season, preferring to graze during dormancy. This has had far reaching and
unplanned beneficial effects. The riparian vegetation has flourished, and wildlife has a reliable
source of food and shelter even in drought years. The effect on my operation was to give me ten
times more forage from the same pasture. A win/win situation.
Perhaps the easiest negative effect to alleviate is the extirpation of predators. I quit killing
coyotes about ten years ago and noticed a sharp decline in calf death loss although the number of
coyotes has risen significantly. Steps taken to decrease susceptibility to depredation have actually
increased my profitability. Another win/win solution.
The next step is to take livestock and turn them into powerful tools for restoration. To do this we
need control of the livestock, where they are and what they are doing. The co-evolution of grasses
and herbivores developed many other interactions besides the removal of leaf tissue. Soil
disturbance, predator-prey relationships, herding behavior, natural cycles and even man have
influenced the behavioral and physical characteristics of plants and animals. A good resource
manager strives to understand these interactions and to use livestock to trigger responses that the
ecosystem remembers from the time of free herding ungulates.
Multiple species of livestock grouped in a herd with the concomitant predators impact the
ecosystem much the same as wild ungulates. Among other things, I use cattle to disturb the soil
surface to alter micro climates, plant seeds, and to disturb fungal hyphae. At times the results have
been dramatic.
Rancher, Deming NM.
When the negative effects of grazing are eliminated and livestock are viewed as tools changes
will begin to occur on the land. Because of the complex interactions between species many of the
results are unpredictable. Considerable monitoring is necessary to correct errors and to recognize
opportunities. Although I have many long term transects in place I rely most heavily on near daily
observation of three measures: seedling establishment, rate of organic decomposition, and erosion.
In my opinion the most important measure of rangeland health is seedling establishment of key
species. I have been on many ranches that are said to be in great shape because they had all the
grass species present. However, under close examination no seedlings could be found. A
population that is not reproducing is not sustainable. However, a population that is actively
reproducing can be sustainable even under adverse conditions.
Whether measured by their effect on the community or by sheer mass, decomposers are more
important to ecosystem health than any other species group. Therefore a measurement of their well
being is essential. I measure decomposition rates very unscientifically by observing termite activity
and the breakdown of fresh and dry manure. Erosion is monitored in reverse by watching how well
grass is colonizing arroyos and rills.
Although these methods may produce marked improvement in the land, the solution is not total
until the human aspect is addressed. Public lands resource managers face an additional challenge
of working with an absentee landlord with multiple personalities. To be effective these managers
must be able to build consensus with public lands agencies, environmentalists, hunters, and a
variety of other interests.
My approach to this task has been to become active in a number of environmental organizations
and to invite anyone and everyone to the ranch to see things first hand. The key is to constantly add
to one•s knowledge and to remain open to discussion and change. This has brought about
acceptance of my management from key groups and, most importantly, it has given me a
tremendous education.
If ranching is to remain a viable industry on public lands we must transform ourselves into true
resource managers. This requires an appreciation for species who•s worth cannot be readily
measured on a balance sheet. We have a responsibility to our landlords to protect and improve the
land for future generations, not claim it as our own.