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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

‘Conservation grazing’ uses cattle to preserve species and landscapes

By Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times
Published: August 27, 2023, 12:51pm

JAKE YANCEY’S COWS get around.

In mid-May, about three dozen Angus were in Grays Harbor County, munching their way across private property the owner is restoring to native prairie.

Come late July, Yancey dispatched part of his herd to an old farm in Tenino that still harbors patches of camas, delicate blue flowers that once blanketed vast grasslands. Another group of cows was scheduled to finish out the summer at Mima Creek preserve in Thurston County, home to endangered Oregon spotted frogs.

The idea of cattle trampling some of Western Washington’s most vulnerable landscapes is ordinarily enough to make environmentalists shudder. But Yancey is part of a small cadre of ranchers practicing a more ecologically sensitive type of grazing that minimizes damage and actually can improve habitat and biodiversity in some situations.

You might call it cows for conservation.

Working with landowners, agencies and conservation groups, the Olympia-area cattleman deploys his animals with multiple goals in mind. One is to produce grass-fed beef as sustainably as possible. Others include protecting prairies, expanding the range of rare species, and keeping agricultural lands from being turned into condos and strip malls.

Which seems like a lot to expect from the cows and steers swishing their tails in the shade at Sabra Noyes’ 40-acre Grays Harbor County property on a hot spring morning. Yancey laughingly calls them his workers, here to do a job. As they fatten up on the lush grass, the cows are helping Noyes control rattail fescue, an invasive species that chokes out native prairie plants.

Yancey kneels in a pasture already eaten down by the cows and grabs a bunch of fescue, showing how it’s been chewed back. Rattail isn’t the cattle’s favorite food, he adds, pointing out places where the animals ripped up clumps and spit them out — essentially doing the work of weeding without any need for manual labor or herbicides.

“They moo a lot and poop a bit, but other than that, they’re pretty good workers,” Yancey says.

USING LIVESTOCK TO benefit the environment is called conservation grazing. It relies on timing — when and how long cattle are on specific pastures — to ensure the animals do more good than harm. Rattail fescue is an early-season grass, so Yancey’s cows are here in May to knock it back before it goes to seed. Native perennials bounce back quickly from light grazing, and by the time the desirable species flower and reseed, the cows will be gone.

Many ranchers employ some type of rotational grazing — shifting animals from place to place — if only to ensure a constant supply of fresh grass. But Yancey and other conservation grazers take the practice to extremes.

These cows have been on Noyes’ land near Oakville for about a week, he explains, and will stay another few days. To better control their impact, Yancey divides the area into several pastures with temporary electric fencing. When the cows have eaten through one plot, he yanks up a few stakes and lowers the wire, and the animals saunter into the new area. When it’s time to travel to a new property, Yancey and his family roll up with their stock trailers, and the cows come running.

“It’s the goofiest thing in the world,” he says. “Our cows know that every time they hop on the bus, they’re going to fresh grass.”

Yancey’s Tracking Y Ranch is an unusual operation because he doesn’t own ranchland. Instead, he rotates his cattle between a dozen parcels of mostly private land across four counties, totaling 525 acres. Each property has its own grazing prescription based on the owner’s conservation goals, from knocking back invasive weeds to improving habitat for butterflies and birds. In some places, Yancey’s cows will graze for as few as three days before moving on. Ranchers with large tracts of property who practice conservation grazing do essentially the same thing, shifting animals between pastures according to a few general principles.

Fields rich with native wildflowers such as camas and golden paintbrush — which recently was removed from the threatened species list — are off-limits until after the plants have produced seed. Cows are usually fenced out of waterways and wetlands. Compared to conventional grazing, conservation grazing also leaves higher stubble, which holds moisture in the soil and allows grass to grow back more quickly.

Noyes has been working more than a decade to eradicate nonnative plants such as thistle and Scotch broom from her property and replace them with wildlife-friendly prairie and savanna vegetation. She never imagined cows as part of the process.

“I’m a vegetarian,” she says. “When I first met Jake, I felt myself stiffen inside. But I think we have a pretty good working partnership here, because I can see the tremendous benefits this kind of rotational grazing can do for habitat enhancement.”

A neighboring property shows what happens when land like this is not managed. An impenetrable tangle of tansy ragwort, a noxious weed toxic to people and livestock, crowds the fence line. Seeds drift onto Noyes’ property, where she’s hard-pressed to stomp out the sprouts.

ONLY ABOUT 3% of the Pacific Northwest’s historic westside prairie remains, says Sarah Hamman, science director for the nonprofit EcoStudies Institute. Several species native to the ecosystem, like Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and the streaked horned lark, are threatened with extinction. Prairie preserves serve as refuges but are mostly small and widely scattered. Some of the biggest potential for restoration lies in holdings such as Noyes’.

“We’ve recognized that if we want to protect and recover these ecosystems, we need to look beyond protected preserves to private lands — farming and grazing lands,” Hamman says.

About six years ago, she teamed up with Washington State University’s local extension program and other agencies and organizations to explore the potential of conservation grazing. Working with three large ranches in Southwest Washington, they tracked experimental and control plots over several years to compare soil quality, erosion, species diversity, forage biomass and other properties.

The results were mixed, but generally favored the approach. While none of the ranch lands had the vibrant variety of plant species found in intact prairies, areas where conservation grazing was implemented had more diversity than conventionally grazed areas. Native plant seeding was also more successful, and butterflies spent more time in the areas. Perhaps the biggest success story was federally threatened Mazama pocket gophers, whose distribution increased 30% where conservation grazing occurred.

At the overgrown farm in Tenino, camas numbers exploded after the cows helped eat back invasive grasses and likely spread the seeds of the native species in their poop. In fact, camas are now so abundant on the property, which is not treated with herbicides, that members of the Chehalis Tribe plan to harvest bulbs, a traditional food, next year.

Ranchlands with greater plant diversity are likely to be more resilient to heat waves, drought or floods, Hamman points out. And from the ranchers’ perspective, reductions in the amount of forage available for their herds were minimal, even though pastures with native wildflowers weren’t grazed until later in the year.

“Using this type of rotation helps to maintain a more sustainable grazing process,” Hamman says. “Grasses don’t get eaten too low and maintain productivity, so (ranchers) don’t have to reseed or add fertilizer.”

The endangered frogs at Mima Creek also responded well to the labor Yancey’s cows perform there: eating their way through tall thickets of invasive reed canary grass. The grass clogs wetlands and streams and overwhelms the short, native vegetation where the frogs lay their eggs.

After two seasons of grazing, the number of egg masses went up tenfold — from three to 30, Hamman says. Water quality testing shows pollution from cow poop isn’t a problem because cattle aren’t allowed in the area until the marshy breeding ground dries up in September. When the frogs return in February, the cow patties have decomposed.

“It’s one of those win-win-win projects,” says Sanders Freed, who manages the 120-acre preserve for the Center for Natural Lands Management. The frogs get more breeding habitat. Freed and his team no longer have to hack out the reed canary grass by hand. And Yancey is able to stay in business.

CONSERVATION GRAZING IS widely used around the world, including in the European Alps and Ireland, where ranchers favor heritage breeds of sheep and cattle well-adapted to the landscapes. But not all environmental scientists are convinced grazing can ever be a good thing from an ecological perspective.

“The only way to increase biodiversity is full cattle exclusion,” says Chris Bugbee, who monitors grazing issues for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation organization.

Cattle are not native to North America, and overgrazing has caused a litany of ecological damage, from fouled rivers and erosion to widespread habitat destruction, he says. Many of the invasive plant species conservationists are now trying to eradicate were spread by cattle in the first place. And studies consistently show most ecosystems become after cattle are removed.

An analysis by University of California researchers of threatened and endangered species listings found a more nuanced view. While grazing is identified as a threat to nearly three-quarters of imperiled rangeland plants and animals, nearly 60% also benefitted from grazing in some way. The significant overlaps suggests that “how grazing is done matters,” the authors write.

Western Washington’s prairies are unusual ecosystems that depend on human intervention for their continued existence, Hamman says. Native Americans set fires to enrich the soil and keep encroaching trees at bay. After settlers arrived, ranching and farming altered the landscape — but also helped slow the natural succession to forests.

Local tribes and conservation groups use a variety of approaches to help restore prairies, including mechanically ripping out invasive shrubs and replanting with native seed. Along with members of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, which owns some adjacent land, Hamman and her colleagues plan to burn some of Noyes’ pastures later this year to help control tansy ragwort.

Conservation grazing is just starting to catch on as an additional tool in Western Washington, but it has the potential to have a major impact, Hamman says. By providing an economic incentive to continue working the land — but in a greener way — the practice might help stave off the biggest threat of all: relentless development.

“For food security, for green space and for the prairies — you can fulfill all those goals with grazing land,” she says. “But you can’t fulfill those goals with town houses or mansions with half an acre each and Kentucky bluegrass lawns.”

COLVIN RANCH IN South Thurston County has some of the region’s most stunning camas fields, brilliant expanses of blue that offer a glimpse into the region’s past. On a late morning in May, the pastures are also dotted with buttercups and clusters of native sunflowers.

Owner Fred Colvin began practicing conservation grazing 20 years ago as a way to ensure his family’s 550-acre ranch will never be developed, he explains, zipping around the property in a 4×4 utility vehicle. The U.S. Department of Agriculture bought the development rights through a conservation easement and helped map out a management plan that includes keeping cattle off sensitive areas when wildflowers are blooming.

That’s a big change from when he was a kid and his dad let the cattle roam across one huge field, Colvin says. Now, like Yancey, he uses temporary fencing to rotate the animals.

“We want to let the native plants come up, set flower and establish a seed,” Colvin says, pointing out a patch of camas with stalks of fading blooms. “Like these guys.”

He wouldn’t have agreed to the easement if he couldn’t have continued to run cattle. “I believe in a working landscape-type conservation,” he says, pausing by a small creek nearly obscured by waist-high grass. “I believe we can figure out how to have agriculture, grazing and forestry and still protect some of these conservation values, like endangered species.”

As a bonus, Colvin is convinced his cows are fattening up better on the diverse mix of grasses and forage plants that flourish on his pastures.

LIKE COLVIN, MANY rural property owners would like to see their land remain in agriculture rather than being sold off or locked up in nature preserves. But it also needs to make economic sense, says Stephen Bramwell, director of WSU’s Thurston County Extension. “How do you both conserve these native species and benefit farmers and ranchers?”

To encourage more landowners to consider rotational or conservation grazing, a new Southwest Washington grazing association is offering classes, tours and workshops, with a demonstration site in the works to compare management strategies. Agencies offer a range of financial incentives for things such as fence building. More funding could be available soon under Thurston County’s habitat conservation plan for endangered prairie species, Bramwell says. And Hamman’s group helps pay for native plant seeds and tracks outcomes in terms of birds, pollinators and plants.

Conservation grazing also can be a powerful marketing tool. Both Colvin and Yancey sell directly to consumers willing to pay a premium for local, grass-fed beef raised in an ecologically sound way. “The customers really like knowing everything about their animals and how they’re raised,” says Yancey.

Sometimes, all it takes is the offer of a helping hand to recruit a landowner to the practice.

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Former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner grew up on a farm and hoped to continue harvesting hay off the old dairy near Chehalis she bought 10 years ago. But the land had been so neglected, the crop was virtually worthless.

Yancey approached her with a proposition: If she let him graze his cattle, he would repair fences and gates, upgrade the irrigation system, and generally keep up the property. The grazing would be tailored to reduce invasive species, increase plant diversity and protect a nearby river from agricultural runoff.

Verner was sold.

“I’m not a cattle person,” she says. “I work full-time and don’t really have time to tend my 30 acres.”

Now, she’s venturing further into restoration, working with agencies and organizations to plant native trees and shrubs and revive two creeks that run through the property.

“A lot has been done over the years to completely alter the habitat, so it’s going to take a long time to restore it,” Verner says. “But I really like seeing the cows out there. And I like knowing that the land is in agriculture use, when all around us the pressure is on for development.”