Dan Murphy: Cattle as Conservationists

Cattle grazing is an important piece in the land management puzzle. Let's hope urban consumers finally beginning to understand how grazing improves land. ( Farm Journal )

There is a key word in any messaging that purports to show the value of what would otherwise be a controversial initiative.

It’s called “management,” or more accurately, “proper management.”

For example: Most big cities in the U.S. are struggling to balance population growth — which increases tax revenues and spurs business development — with the need for new housing and expansion of such services as the delivery of utilities.

Add in the need to control sprawl by promoting housing density while avoiding overly strict land-use regulations, and “management” becomes more than a buzzword. It’s the essential ingredient to successful urban planning.

Here’s an even better example: livestock production, specifically beef production.

Amidst all of the media salivation over “clean meat,” what gets lost in the (alleged) calculations about energy savings and animal welfare is the impact of conventional agriculture on the very resources — water, soil and vegetation — that are simply assumed to be a “given” among all the clean meat proponents who imagine a future where food is magically manufactured in energy-intensive factories.

In truth, one of the biggest long-term challenges facing this country is maintaining its food security as global population growth expands the markets for food exports across Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. It’s great that U.S. agriculture is helping feed the world, but not only must we as a nation maintain our domestic food chain, we must maintain the land needed to produce the crops needed to maintain that production chain, even if we’re talking about alt-meat products grown in what amounts to giant test tubes.

The Before and After Comparison
Back to the concept of management, because it applies specifically to animal agriculture.

Ask the proverbial 100 people in the street their views on grazing cattle on public lands, and I’ll bet the majority would consider it to be suspect, if not an outright abomination.

Yet examples abound of the synergies — many only recently realized — of strategically grazing bovines on rangeland where grassy vegetation predominates.

Here’s a great example, and it’s one that isn’t being touted by some wild-eyed industry shill, but by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As a recent report on the Service’s website noted, in the San Francisco Bay area, “grazing lands for cattle have been squeezed out by sprawling development,” a problem that’s endemic to many more places than San Francisco (as noted a few paragraphs above).

However, a public-private partnership with the Imhof family, ranchers Frank and his son, Frank Jr., places grazing cattle on the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont, Calif.

The project takes place on the Warm Springs unit of the refuge, a 719-acre “vernal pool” grassland where seasonal ponds support several endangered species, such as the tadpole shrimp and California tiger salamanders.

Now, the average American (unfortunately) could care less about tadpole shrimp and tiger salamanders, but they do care about protecting wildlife — the more iconic species, anyway — and preserving natural habitats containing water resources and green space.

Especially in California, which is desperately short of both.

Here’s what this experiment, and many others, quite frankly, have proven, and I’m quoting from the Fish and Wildlife Service report: “Grazing benefits endangered wildlife, specifically by reducing the dominance of non-native grasses that suck up water and shorten the seasonal lifespan of pool breeding habitats.”

For other wildlife, such as burrowing owls, a species unique to California, and ground squirrels that dig burrows used by the owls and salamanders, grazing helps them detect the presence of predators.

All that might feel like window dressing to urban residents who are clueless about how ecosystems rely on the interaction of animals and the vegetation in their habitats, but the Fish and Wildlife Service has an irrefutable response to any such skepticism.

At the Fremont wildlife refuge, managers maintain several small, ungrazed “exclosures,” where cattle are not allowed, to serve as a comparison with the grazed area.

“Inside the small, fenced-off areas, non-native grasses grow in thick clusters as high as three feet, choking out native plants,” according to the report. “It’s a dramatic contrast to the flourishing Contra Costa goldfields and other colorful flowers on the surrounding land, where, rain allowing, vernal pools form seasonally.”

As the report noted, the grazing arrangement between the Imhofs and the Service began in 2004 with just 25 head and now involves about 100 cattle in 10 fenced-off fields. The Service determines market rate for grazing fees and calculates the value of the in-kind work the ranchers do, such as construction of exclosure sites.

Here’s the key: The rotation schedule used to move cattle among the different enclosures is guided by a spreadsheet with targets for the length of grazing time in each field.

In other words, proper management.

As Frank, Jr., explained, “A lot of people in this area now don’t even know about the history with ranching here. They’re amazed when I tell them we do cattle grazing in Fremont.”

Hopefully, that amazement might eventually evolve into understanding.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.