CCC: Cover, Cattle, Clean Water

Andy Marcum’s eye-opener was when he walked a ridge on his farm soon after snowmelt and noted the ground was speckled with the delicate, purple pedals of pasque flowers—more than he’d ever seen in his life. For Dan Jenniges, the aha moment came when he realized that he was grazing more cattle on fewer acres, and yet still had plenty of grass available at the end of the summer. J.B. Bright sees it whenever livestock are allowed to carefully graze one of the 250 waterfowl production areas he manages and native grasses and forbs respond with a riot of growth, producing prime bird, insect and mammal habitat. Jeff Duchene’s moment of awareness comes repeatedly, whenever he does a rainfall simulation and notes how without fail the sample of soil covered with well-managed grass or cover crops soaks in more water and sends less running off the surface.

These observations, all taking place in west-central Minnesota’s farm country, are no accident. They are signs that an effort to get more continuous living cover established in an agricultural watershed—in this case the Chippewa—is starting to pay off as farmers and natural resource professionals make the connection between more cover on the land, a healthier environment and profitable agriculture.

“I’m kind of excited to see where it can go from here,” said Jenniges.

Profitable Pasture

This is part of an initiative called the Chippewa 10% Project, a team effort involving the Land Stewardship Project and the Chippewa River Watershed Project, along with several other partners, including agencies, environmental groups, educational institutions and farmers. The ability of continuous living cover—whether it be cover crops or permanent pasture grass—to produce profits and environmental sustainability were on full display in mid-July during a Chippewa 10% field day in Pope County. This is an area where the initiative is working with farmers, natural resource agencies and environmental groups on the “Simon Lake Challenge,” an effort to spread conservation across private and public lands by getting as much healthy habitat established as possible.

Dan and Linda Jenniges’s pasture abutting the East Branch of the Chippewa River is a prime example of how innovations in grazing management can not only profitably improve environmental health, but actually seed better relations between natural resource agencies and farmers.

“I’ve already noticed a lot more birds, a lot more insects, more deer, and I haven’t taking anything away from the cattle,” said Dan as he stood in the middle of the pasture in front of a couple dozen farmers, natural resource professionals and journalists during the field day.

He’s done more than not take anything away from the cattle—Jenniges has actually been able to increase the land’s carrying capacity significantly. He’s bumped up the number of beef cows grazing on this 189-acre piece of land from 65 to 85. In fact, the increase is even more dramatic than it appears, considering that initially the pasture was 289 acres and it still couldn’t accommodate 85 cows without suffering the effects of overgrazing.

With the help of advice from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as well as cost-share funds from its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Jenniges has spent the past two years dramatically overhauling how he grazes the pasture. His goal was not only to increase production during the prime part of the growing season when cool season grasses do well, but to extend the grazing season through the late summer hot months when such species often go dormant. So on part of the pasture he planted warm season native grasses and forbs, such as sideoats grama, Indian grass, big bluestem, little bluestem and white and purple prairie clovers. To prepare the seedbed for the native species, he planted a cocktail mix of cover crops that included, among other species, soybeans, turnips, sorghum, oats and field peas, which he was also able to graze.

Jenniges then expanded the number of paddocks in the pasture from four to 18. This allows him to rotate the cattle more frequently, giving the forages in each paddock time to recover—as much as 60 to 80 days—and distributing manure and urine evenly throughout the landscape. Moving cattle through paddocks on a regular basis is a key element of managed rotational grazing, but Jenniges has taken it one step further. Two years ago, the Chippewa 10% Project brought in North Dakota livestock producer Gene Goven to talk about how he utilizes “mob grazing” to significantly increase the stocking capacity of his pastures while building soil health and improving water quality. This involves putting a relatively high number of animals in a paddock for a short amount of time and then, depending on conditions, moving them after a few days, often leaving as much as a third of the uneaten forage behind. This is in stark contrast to the traditional method of grazing, which relies on getting as much vegetation harvested as possible. But leaving feed behind, much of which gets stomped into the ground, builds soil health, making the paddock a fertile home for more growth and building resiliency in the face of droughty conditions.

Jenniges said this mob grazing system was difficult to accept at first, given his propensity to get as much grass as possible off a pasture. “I’m used to the idea of if it’s there, you take it,” he said. “It’s really a mind-set to realize that if I leave this I’m going to gain something back from it, and within a year and a half I’ve seen enough results to sell me on it.”

And the results were evident on a day in deep summer—the grass was thick and verdant. “This is the most grass I’ve ever seen on this pasture,” said Duchene, who is a grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

J.B. Bright liked the condition of the pasture as well, and not just because it was producing good forage. Bright, a wildlife refuge specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted how the rotational grazing system had created structural diversity, or “heterogeneity,” over the 189 acres. In other words, vegetation was at different heights and levels of maturity across the landscape. This is critical for providing different species of wildlife the kinds of habitat and food sources each requires throughout the growing season. The needs of grassland songbirds differ from that of mallards or Canada geese. Bumblebees seek out different flowers than other pollinators.

It’s that kind of diversity Bright strives for on the refuge acres he manages, including a waterfowl production area that borders the Jenniges pasture. That’s why, working with livestock producers like Jenniges, he utilizes grazing to manage grasslands on refuge lands.

“Grasslands are disturbance dependent ecosystems, so just leaving it alone is going to get you a lot of trees and other woody vegetation, or a lot of non-native grasses,” said Bright, adding that in some ways grazing is more reliable than his other major grassland management tool, burning, since it’s not so weather dependent.

By allowing farmers to contract graze refuge land periodically, wildlife managers not only get improved grassland habitat in public areas, but the farmers get to rest their own pastures, improving the habitat available on those private lands.

And there’s an added benefit to this relationship: better community relations. Jenniges explained that growing up in an area where there are a relatively high number of state and federal wildlife areas generated a negative view of refuge lands amongst he and other livestock producers. While scrambling to find enough pasture to graze on, they watched helplessly as these public areas become overgrown with invasives. Being allowed periodic access to these lands shows that natural resource professionals like Bright acknowledge the role working lands conservation can play throughout the community, said Jenniges.

“It gives me a reason to accept some of these public lands in our community,” he said.

Such improved relations don’t just make for a less tense community. Jenniges’s planting of warm season natives in his pasture was done with the assistance of habitat specialists like Bright. For good reason: those species not only help get cattle through a summer slump, they provide food and habitat throughout the growing season for wild residents.

Flower Power

A few miles from the Jenniges farm, Andy and Lindsey Marcum are also proving that intense management can reclaim “lost habitat.” When the Marcums moved on to some hilly land adjacent to a Nature Conservancy preserve a few years ago, there had not been livestock present for some 50 years. And it showed it: the grassland was severely degraded, all but taken over by sumac and eastern red cedars.

They mowed the woody invasives and used EQIP funding to install the fencing and watering systems needed for a rotational grazing system. The Marcums started mob grazing it in 2013—moving the cattle every four to seven days—to keep the invasives down. It worked and produced a pleasant surprise in the bargain, a reminder of the land’s ecological history. In early spring of 2015, Andy walked a ridge behind his house that had been mob grazed the previous year. Snow had just receded but the land was already sprouting pasque flowers, a significant sign of a healthy prairie.

“I could not believe the amount of flowers I saw,” recalled Marcum as he provided a tour of his grazing paddocks. “It started with the pasque flowers, and as we progressed into the summer the amount of wildflowers and the diversity of grass species that came back blew me away. That was the holy cow moment for me that this works.”

On a sunny day in July, Marcum, who has done landowner outreach for the Chippewa 10% Project, pointed out grazing areas full of sideoats grama, big bluestem, Indian grass, lead plant and purple coneflower. Across a perimeter fence that marks the property line, a neighbor’s field provided a hint at what Marcum’s land used to look like: solid sumac smothered the field as far as the eye could see, making it all but impassable for man or beast.

It’s no accident that both Marcum and Jenniges started out revitalizing their grasslands with good fencing. One of the first things to go after livestock leave a farm are the wire and posts—corn and soybeans tend not to sprout legs and wander off the property. Lack of fencing makes it unlikely that livestock will ever return to that land. This isn’t just an issue on private lands: Bright said one of the biggest barriers to using livestock to manage grasslands on refuges is lack of good fencing. Innovations in portable, affordable fencing that can be put up quickly make it possible to return livestock to land that has not been grazed for a long time, decades in some cases. Increased portability of lightweight electric fencing also makes it easier to utilize livestock as a way to target certain areas of the landscape with more intense grazing, while going lighter on others, depending on the condition of the forage and management goals. In a sense, it’s made livestock farmers nimbler, and better able to match the animal impact to the what the land needs and can handle.

Follow the Flow

This is all good news for livestock producers and wildlife refuge managers. But having farming systems that are based on continuous living cover be a practical and profitable option also has implications for the wider public. An increasing number of studies show that when, for example, cover crops or well managed pastures are present on a farm, the amount of erosion and runoff of fertilizers and other chemicals drops significantly. Such plant regimes also build organic matter in the soil, which dramatically improves the land’s ability to retain moisture while generating its own fertility—in a word, it’s made more resilient.

One estimate is that cover crops can cut nitrogen runoff by 20 percent to 30 percent. As soil organic matter increases from 1 percent to 3 percent, soil’s water holding capacity can double. Replacing even just 20 percent of a highly erosive corn or soybean field with perennials can reduce runoff by as much as 90 percent.

Those are important facts in the Chippewa, a 1.3-million-acre watershed where 74 percent of the land is devoted to agriculture. The Chippewa is the single biggest watershed tributary to the Minnesota River, one of the most polluted waterways in the Upper Midwest. Environmental scientists agree on one point: more of the land needs to be covered in living plants throughout the year, not just a few months during the corn-soybean growing season. That’s why making continuous cover a profitable and practical alternative has implications outside of west-central Minnesota.

And there’s nothing like a rain simulation to drive that point home. On a bright summer day on the Marcum farm, a motorized sprinkler tracked back and forth above a tray, saturating five squares of soil that had been spaded up from area fields. Each square represented different management methods: an overgrazed pasture, a cover cropped field, a rotationally grazed pasture, a field managed using a low-tillage method called strip-till, and a cornfield that relied on heavy tillage. As a crowd of farmers and natural resource professionals looked on, the artificial rainfall began making its way in two different directions: down through the squares, and over their surface, filling large plastic jugs hung in strategic spots. The take home message of this exercise? You want lots of water in the jugs directly beneath the tray, because that’s a sign the soil is healthy enough to take in the moisture and make use of it. Lots of water in the jugs hung to catch surface runoff is not so good, especially if it’s stained with eroded soil.

Predictably, the samples that represented the least vegetation above and below the surface—the conventionally tilled cornfield and the overgrazed pasture—sent the least amount of water down through the soil profile; the majority escaped over the surface. Perhaps the most troubling was the amount of sediment that smeared the flume channeling the overland runoff from the intensely tilled cornfield. The cover cropped and no-till samples, with their better soil structure, put plenty of water in the infiltration jugs and produced little runoff. But the rotationally grazed pasture was the winner: it’s infiltration jug was almost full while barely enough ran off to water a small dog. What was present was crystal clear.

“I’ve run this test many, many times and we come up with something close to this every time,” said the NRCS’s Duchene at the conclusion of the demonstration. “Building soil health like this gives farmers a chance to be proactive on protecting water quality, and it helps your farm as well, because once that soil washes off your land, it’s lost.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.