A Grazing Study with Multiple Benefits

How do you mange steep, thin, erosion-prone soils? Long-term set-asides have been the go-to plan for decades. That’s especially true when the soil has been stripped of native cover by tillage.

But land retirement may not be the only solution. Researchers at Washington State University discovered that grazing management improved the quality of fragile lands. That result is interesting enough. But the study also demonstrated that environmentalists and ranchers can work together to accomplish goals important to each.

A team of advisors from environmental groups, Washington State Parks, and the university designed dual project goals: protect and restore historic plant and animal communities while demonstrating economically viable grazing techniques “to hold family ranches together.”

The intent was to identify practices to protect fragile soils while allowing economic use of the land. Dalles Mountain Ranch, a historic site in south-central Washington was chosen. It contained grasslands under management similar to CRP lands across the country.

Extension Educator Steve Van Vleet and his team found a promising grazing technique. They concentrated animals on small parcels for a short time through the winter season while desirable plants were dormant.

During the following growing season, perennial grasses were more productive and nutritious, wildflowers increased in the grazed areas, and there was less bare ground. Ranchers using the site were able to increase stocking on the better forage and realized more income.

As a result of the study, funded by USDA’s Sustainable Ag Research and Education program, over 200 ranchers came to learn how to use these techniques. An additional 7500 acres will soon see this type of management on expiring CRP contracts in Washington.

The project would not have happened without close cooperation between Van Vleet’s team, the state agency, and several environmental groups. They spent a year working on the goals and techniques to be used. As a result of that long process, they overcame concerns about using cattle as a conservation tool and worked together to solve problems as they arose. The university team now has new partnerships with environmental groups, state and federal agencies, and ranchers.

Partners are now carrying the livestock-as-valuable-tools message to the public. One group is working on a YouTube video while another plans an educational kiosk at the ranch. A new project is in the works for prairie restoration.

Reports on the research are available here on the SARE website. Van Vleet can be reached through Washington State University Extension, 509.397.6290.