Becoming a grazier 'could help save our ecosystems'

| 24th September 2018
Cattle grazing

Cattle grazing in overgrown areas can aid environmental restoration.

Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels
The cattle grazing of the past used to mean depletion of natural resources and overgrazing land. A new grazing movement, however, involves carefully mapping overgrown areas that may aid in environmental restoration, argues EMILY FOLK

With more and more ranchers taking on the grazier lifestyle, these years may represent a tipping point for our understanding of grazing methods and sustainable livestock rearing overall.

Sometimes the best solution for the future is to look into the past. A growing movement of ranchers and ecologists seem to be doing exactly this, using cattle and livestock grazing as a means to clear brush and other harmful flora from neglected pieces of land.

Where many environmentalists have pegged the solution to environmental restoration as a purely technological one, the grazier movement takes the opposite approach, employing the oldest method of brush-clearing.

Grazing is often considered alongside some of the worst manmade offenses against nature. In many cases, protected or vulnerable land was sold to ranchers and ravaged by grazing herds; several species of prairie and plains plants are now extinct thanks to overgrazing, and the intruding herds destroyed the natural environment for many other animals, displacing them in the process.

Inherently bad

In various locations across the U.S., topsoil overgrazing annihilated topsoil, where hungry cattle loosened and ate the roots holding the soil together.

This mismanagement was particularly common in the early days of ranching, long before environmentalism had developed a foothold in the public conscience. During these days the concept of American abundance — of infinite plains stretching into the distance — seemed too large ever to become depleted or degraded. Cattle herds soon proved otherwise.

While one can forgive the ignorance of the past, many of the old practices linger today. State and Federal lands — which one might assume are protected by law — are often opened to livestock grazing, and are more beneficial to ranchers, as the lands are usually safe and subsidized locations for mass grazing.

In some cases the government overseeing these lands is ignorant of their ecological importance, resulting in further displacement and destruction of vulnerable species.

Where the destruction of the plains and prairie typically stemmed from land mismanagement and a lack of sustainable practices, many environmentalists argue that grazing is not itself inherently bad for the environment.

Natural processes

Some have taken this philosophy even further. The new grazier movement operates under the assumption that grazing should exist for the good of the environment.

In a day, a grazier leads his or her herd across the land, meticulously picking areas that have become overgrown and will benefit from the cattle grazing. The path chosen for the grazing is also important: in the past, cattle paths have caused harmful erosion and worn ruts into the sensitive soil. 

Conversely, the modern grazier will map out his or her routes in such a way that the intruding hooves do not harm the soil and benefit certain natural occurrences.

For instance, a riverbed that has become choked and overgrown might be grazed to help clear the intruding grasses and walked along to help define its banks and boundaries during the operation.

Much of the life of a grazier comes down to careful and intentional planning. Mapping is key: a grazier should choose a path for his livestock to best benefit the land and protect the natural processes that are the heart of sustainability.

Topsoil replenished

Choosing a specific area for grazing also requires logistical planning: what route will the cattle take; how much fencing is needed; how long can the cattle sustainably graze the area? Thus, the first hours of the day are spent in careful meditation on these questions, a map in hand.

Then comes the preparation: tearing down any unused previous fencing materials, beating a path to the next grazing area and setting up the cattle boundaries.

While maps are an invaluable resource, nature has a habit of throwing curveballs, and it is important to get the lay of the land before bringing the cattle to pasture. Sustainable grazing is a precision skill, and any mistakes in the areas that will benefit from cattle attention can have the exact opposite effect.

Fences are themselves tools used as much for targeted grazing as for the prevention of bovine escapees. By fencing specific areas, graziers ensure that the hungry cows will take care of the rest, pruning certain areas of advancing brush and leaving areas outside of the fences mostly unharmed. Likewise, the path chosen is an important one. Cattle herding often destroys natural streambeds and riverbanks, and avoiding these issues is paramount.

However, careful herding can also be used for good: seeding an area before walking the cattle across it helps to press the grass seed into the topsoil and replenish an area for future grazing.

Getting involved

A few well-placed cattle hooves can help shore up a river bank, or tamp down a silty bed so water can flow more freely. With some serious planning, cattle can help erase the same problems they've created.

While sustainable practices are on the rise, the vast majority of cattle ranchers still utilize the old ways. For this reason, the next decade holds an extremely important place in American history.

With more and more ranchers taking on the grazier lifestyle, these years may represent a tipping point for our understanding of grazing methods and sustainable livestock rearing overall.

However, it is also possible that the movement loses momentum and the old methods — which have been used since the mid-1800s — continue destroying land and natural environments around the states.

Many of us will be watching, and many more are already getting involved.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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