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Grazing could save Ordway Prairie again

BROOTEN -- John Maile and Jared Culbertson manage over 2,700 acres of protected wild lands at sites from Starbuck to Paynesville for the Nature Conservancy.

They are hard pressed to call any one their favorite, but they have no trouble telling you why one stands out. No matter where you might look in Minnesota, you would have a difficult time finding prairie holding the diversity of native plants as does the Ordway Prairie in southern Pope County.

"Outstanding bio-diversity,'' said Maile in describing the 581-acre tract owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Keeping it that way is the purpose of a two-year test program that has re-introduced a missing component in the original grassland environment: grazing ungulates.

We know them as beef cattle, and they belong to livestock producers Dan and Linda Jenniges of rural Pope County. Beef cattle may not be the bison and elk that roamed these lands in pre-settlement years, but make no mistake: It was the use of this land for grazing cattle that preserved the prairie.

Pointing to a couple piles of rocks now overgrown by vegetation, Maile said early efforts to plow and plant crops in even the low areas of this glacial moraine landscape proved futile. Moraines are the mess left at the edges of glaciers: Steep hills, and light soils chock-full of gravel and bigger rocks.

The first settlers and those who followed used this hilly land to graze livestock, and they probably could have done no better. By 1970 it was recognized that this was among the best of the remaining native prairie in Minnesota. Kathy Ordway provided funding to the Nature Conservancy to acquire much of the site from willing sellers, two brothers who still spoke in their native Norwegian tongue, according to Maile.

Ever since, the main tool in preserving the prairie has been the use of fire. Fire has always been an important part of the prairie system. But even with prescribed burns, Maile said it remains a challenge to keep ahead of the invading plant species. Woody plants like red cedar, sumac, buckthorn, green ash and box elder encroach from all directions, as do all types of cool season, non-native grasses.

Culbertson said grazing livestock can play the same role in the health of the native prairie as did bison. Native prairie needs disturbance. The hoofs of large animals work up the soil to the benefit of the native plants. Their grazing can keep many undesirable plant species in check.

Jenniges practices a rotational grazing system. He uses an electric fence to move the cattle so they do not over-graze an area to the detriment of native prairie plants.

The test is confined to an area no larger than six acres. It's a corner of the Ordway Prairie that had seen the most farming and grazing in the years before its acquisition by the Nature Conservancy. Cool season or non-native grasses dominate, and the cattle are devouring them.

The cattle will soon be moved to another area, and the timing couldn't be better. The native grasses will have the advantage of warmer weather to re-assert themselves, and the sunlight they need. The grazing has trimmed the cool season grasses and prevented them from shading out the native grasses and forbs.

Maile and Culbertson believe wildlife will benefit too. By limiting the cattle to a small area, the prairie still holds all the tall grass areas needed for nesting birds. When the cattle are moved, the young chicks should be able to feast on the insects in the just-grazed area, they explained.

There is also a hoped-for, "big picture" benefit to all of this, according to the participants.

Jenniges said finding lands to graze livestock in Minnesota is increasingly difficult and expensive. As a result, it is very difficult for livestock producers to "rest'' their pasture lands and allow the grasses to rejuvenate.

If producers could periodically graze their cattle on conservation lands, they could rejuvenate their lands. Wildlife would benefit overall by having more available grassland in place of plowed, row crop acres.

This test project is part of a partnership of the Nature Conservancy, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a host of groups in Pope County ranging from the Glacial Ridge Cattleman's Association to Pheasants Forever.

Livestock are being given similar, limited access to other conservation acres. The test project also includes harvesting some of the conservation lands for hay. Like grazing, haying can benefit grasslands by knocking down woody invasive plants and preventing the build up of decaying vegetation.

Jenniges points out that there is roughly 36 million acres of Conservation Reserve lands in the U.S. Now, costly practices such as prescribed burns and chemical controls are the main tools in protecting their biological integrity. He would like to see grazing and haying gain the recognition they deserve as environmentally beneficial tools.

The use of rotational grazing on public lands is both management and labor intensive, all the more so when it's part of a carefully monitored study. Jenniges said he has no qualms about the extra effort. He believes the study will show that grazing cattle are the right tool to not only protect but make better our prairie grasslands for future generations. "What price do you put on that?'' he asked.