Waterfowl area grazing benefits birds, cattlePublished 12:00pm Thursday, February 21, 2008
GLENWOOD — Dan Jenniges’ cattle are eating better and helping to create better nesting areas for migratory birds, thanks to the managed grazing agreement he has with the Morris Wetlands Management District, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He has been raising Angus and Simmental cattle, as well as Rambouillet cross sheep near Glenwood since 1977.
“I guess we started about four years ago,” he says. “We have about 1,000 acres, and some of that get pretty brown and dry.”
Citing his livestock’s need for better nutritional value, he moves them off his own pastureland onto nearby state-managed Waterfowl Production Areas for short-term grazing.
He uses a half-section plus another 120 acres of Waterfowl Production Area near his ranch. There, his cattle can munch on plenty of smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass.
Meanwhile, he’s doing his own pastureland a service.
“It’s letting your land rest,” he says. “From May to August, it’s just sitting there. You can bank your grass.”
J.B. Brite, refuge operations specialist with the Morris Waterfowl Production Area, agrees.
“Ranchers see the value in resting their grass,” he says, “especially with the lack of rainfall.” When cattle graze the same land on a continuous basis, the plant life suffers unless recovery time is allowed.
“Some of these guys are damaging their pastures,” he says. “There’s not enough of a buffer, or litter material, to protect it. Cattle are feeding all day, and taller grasses need to rest more.”
At the same time, in the Waterfowl Production Areas, the heavy litter layer is making the land less attractive to ground-nesting migratory birds.
“If you let a grassland just sit there, it gets that litter layer on it of real old dead grass,” Jenniges says. “Around here, you get a lot of little trees.” Putting his livestock to work on the Waterfowl Production Areas helps both the cattle and the birds.
Waterfowl Production Areas preserve wetlands and grasslands critical to waterfowl and other wildlife.
These public lands, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, became part of the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1966 through the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act.
Nearly 95 percent of the Waterfowl Production Areas are located in the prairie pothole areas of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.
Waterfowl Production Areas are managed to attract and produce migratory waterfowl, migratory nongame birds and resident wildlife.
“In the remnant (native) prairie, the exotic (grass) species move in and thistle comes with them,” Brite says. “We’re trying to maintain the integrity of the prairie for ease of maintenance and a diverse (mix) of waterfowl and songbirds. When brome and bluegrass take over, you get more of a monoculture. They mat over more quickly, and that’s not as attractive to the birds.”
The most common tools used to manage these grasses include grazing, haying and prescribed burning, which are followed by a period of rest.
Working with local ranchers, cattle are allowed to graze on certain Waterfowl Production Areas using a permit system. This grazing closely mimics the effects native bison once provided to stimulate plant growth.
“The cattle (Jenniges) was grazing ate the brome and bluegrass,” he says. “The natives are coming up and doing great, and they have greater seed production.”
There is one possible barrier to ranchers interested in grazing a Waterfowl Production Area, however.
“The No. 1 limiting factor is a lack of permanent borders,” Brite says.
Fencing the land for its first grazing requires a cooperative effort on the part of the rancher and the Wetlands Management District.
“We furnish permanent border fence materials for a barb-wire fence, and they put it up,” he says. “We also allow a deduction on the land use for their labor.”
Unfortunately, Brite and the other Wetlands Management Districts are prohibited from agreeing to a long-term yearly contract or special use permit. Those options would make the opportunity more attractive to ranchers.
“We don’t want to get into a three-year permit, but what I did for Dan was basically give him a letter stating he fenced it off. The grazing plan is to graze the unit over 20 years. We’ll generally graze two years on, then give it three off, and let it all rest for a year. So if grazing is permitted that year, Jenniges gets first rights to it.”
If ranchers are willing to make the initial investment in labor, it can pay dividends over time.
“It’s probably initially a bit higher cost than some other land,” Jenniges says, “but they give you credit for short-term grazing and a discount for fence maintenance, so my grazing fee comes out to zero.”
Managed grazing is used on a relatively small overall area, compared with other management practices.
“We’re managing 35,000 acres of grass,” Brite says. “When I talk to the ranchers, I send them a special use permit and tell them that since it is deduction-based, they don’t get charged until they do the grazing.”
Add that to the benefit cattle get on these Waterfowl Production Areas, and it looks like a very attractive alternative for many ranchers.