The first Kickapoo Grazing Initiative 2017 pasture walk was held on the farm of Mike and Dani Lind on May 2, in rural Soldiers Grove. Almost 50 participants attended the event.
Lind is a grassfed beef producer, in partnership with John Danforth. He is also a partner in Driftless Organics.
The event attracted mud-boot-clad farmers engaged in pastured production from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Tom and Debbie Lee, New Zealand grassfed beef producers, were also in attendance at the event. Many UW-Madison graduate students, studying in various conservation disciplines were present, including one from Switzerland. Karrie Jackelen from Representative Ron Kind’s office in LaCrosse was also a participant.
North Crawford High School graduate Keefe Keeley is conducting research on the economic and environmental benefits of the ‘Silvopasture’ method of livestock production on the farm. Keeley is a UW-Madison PhD candidate and the Director of the Savanna Institute.
Keeley’s research kicked off in the fall of 2016, and will likely culminate after three growing seasons as he writes his thesis in Agro-ecology for a PhD from the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Silvopasture is a method of agricultural production that can make carefully managed woodlots a productive part of livestock operations. Keeley’s research aims to identify methods of grazing that don’t degrade timber and soil, and benefit livestock. A secondary focus is oak savannah restoration.
Woodlots make money
Grazed woodlots may have potential to become more productive for timber, yield greater tax benefits, become more resilient in extreme weather, help to slow and reduce runoff of water, and offer livestock protection against the stress of extreme temperatures.
“Recapturing the productivity of forested acres can help landowners avoid the need to purchase or rent additional acres to support their grazing operations,” Keeley pointed out. “Further, woodlands used for agricultural purposes are taxed at a lower rate than if they are used for recreational purposes.”
Lind told the group that doing what they had done to reclaim wooded acres on their property had cost them money.
“Nevertheless, doing what we’ve done here to add an acre costs less than buying new land,” Lind said.
Lind believes one of the clear benefits of restoring the woods on his land is seeing things get cleaned up, and invasive species removed.
“I’m optimistic that the cleared areas will stay looking nice,” Lind said. “Hopefully, this research will show whether the cost is worth the squeeze.”
There are currently funds available through the NRCS Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), for area landowners to develop grazing.
“Landowners should contact me, and I can assist them with a site assessment,” said Cynthia Olmstead, Kickapoo Grazing Initiative Director. “The funds can be used to develop paddock fencing, water sourcing and brush clearing.” Olmstead can be reached at 608-606-6022, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opening up the canopy and removing invasive brush such as honeysuckle, buckthorn and Multiflora rose, combined with thinning trees and encouraging growth of useful pasture vegetation in the restored forest environment, can increase the quality of timber production.
If used for intensively managed, rotational grazing, it also offers graziers an environment where their animals can seek shade when temperatures are higher.
Well-managed woodlands have great potential to slow and reduce runoff of water as well. Invasive-choked woodlands inhibit the growth of a diverse understory, and are comparatively ineffective in absorbing and slowing runoff.
"The bottom line is we need more perennial vegetation to slow rainfall before it becomes flash floods, Keeley explained. “Planting a lot more perennials, such as pasture, forages, apples, aronia, and prairie strips might reduce flooding."
Woodlots and savannah
Crawford County used to be dominated by a landscape known as the ‘oak savannah.’ Before the arrival of Europeans, fire defined the landscape. Set by lightning or native hunters, it thinned out underbrush each year. Left behind were prairie grasses and some oaks.
The basic strategy put forward by the Savanna Institute is to develop agricultural systems modeled after this exceptionally productive ecosystem.
The institute’s premise is that ‘agricultural savannas’ or ‘Silvopasture’ can also function this way, taking the form of natural savannas, but with well-designed and intensively managed combinations of plants and animals valuable to humans for food, fuel and fiber.
A different point of view
Fifty percent of Crawford County’s 184,400 acres are forested. The conservation community has been united for years around the idea that using forested land for pasture is degrading, and reduces forest health and productivity.
“Different trees are more vulnerable to damage by livestock,” one event participant, Jack Knight, pointed out. “Burr Oak is very resilient and is adapted to growing in lands that were grazed by buffalo. Maple on the other hand is highly vulnerable.”
Knight, an experienced forester, pointed out that there is no question that thinning the trees, eliminating invasive brush, and opening up the canopy will increase tree growth and timber quality.
“I’ll admit up front that I’ve come to this event as a skeptic,” Knight shared. “But I can see it is possible that carefully managed grazing and healthy woodlots could be combined.”
Keeley’s work on the Lind farm, and neighbor Bob Haessle’s farm, involves five intensively managed forested hillside sites. Overall, the emphasis of the project is to observe how the percentage of canopy, the variety and density of forage cover, and the intensive management of livestock access interacts.
The goal is to find the optimal approach and balance to make all components work best together, and achieve the landowner and conservation goals.
In each area, the forest canopy has been thinned to a target range of 30-70 percent cover; trees have been thinned to target prioritized species and spacing; and underbrush has been removed or knocked back by mechanical or labor-intensive methods.
Each area was either simply cleared, or seeded with a pasture mix or a native seed mix. The native seed mix presents additional challenges because it can require one or more thaw-freeze-cycles in order to germinate. Achieving seed soil contact with a heavy cover of leaves in a forested environment also presents unique challenges.
One strategy was to seed in the fall prior to the major leaf fall. The group did some raking, and the machine brush clearing, snowmelt, and the hooves of the animals also help to move the seeds down toward the soil.
The group visited two of the five sites that Keeley has developed.
The first site viewed by the group was up high in a south-facing forested area. It was just uphill from an open, pasture area. The canopy had been cleared to about 30 percent, and the understory had been cleared of brush using a hired forestry mower after being seeded with clover last September. Some of the area had also been cleared by hand.
“It’s like a geometry puzzle,” commented Vance Haugen, the Crawford County UW-Extension Agent. “The taller the trees, the more sun will hit the forest floor, and the better the planted forage crops will grow. There are lots of pieces to the puzzle, and every site is different.”
Knight also pointed out that the direction that the area faces will have an impact, with south and west facing areas providing better sun for growth, but north and east facing areas providing better shade for livestock.
The forestry mowing service used to clear the area cost $185 per hour. The two-acre area took approximately ten hours to clear with the mower.
Randy Mell, the UW-Extension Agent for LaCrosse County and a professional forester, shared that there are three of these forestry mowing service providers that are active in Southwest Wisconsin.
In the area, some of the honeysuckle shrubs were re-sprouting, particularly where the mechanical clearing method had been used. While full-grown, woody honeysuckle shrubs are not something that cattle will eat, there was some interest expressed about whether they would like the tender young shoots.
“Using the mechanical method, it’s a lot harder to keep the trees and plants you want to protect,” Keeley noted. “And it’s never going to be as perfect as when you do the work by hand, but it’s a lot more feasible if you want to clear a large area.”
Regarding oak regeneration, oak is a disturbance-dependent-species.
“Oak is easily out-competed by aggressive invasives, and is adapted to fire as the main method of disturbance,” Keeley noted. “Part of my research is to explore whether intensively managed grazing can replace fire in a savannah-restoration scenario.”
The second site was also south facing. The area had been cleared with a combination of mechanical and labor-intensive methods, and the canopy was denser than at the first site, approximately 70 percent.
Part of the area had been seeded with a pasture mix, and part with a native seed mix. Heavy September 2016 rainfall had washed a lot of the seed down the hill into a central area that received a lot of sun, and appeared to be growing well. The area was next to an established pasture area.
“With a forested pasture area, you always want to make sure that the animals have access to an adjacent area with abundant forage to minimize overgrazing,” Keeley explained.
Flags scattered throughout the area indicated sampling sites where data was gathered for the research.
Keeley’s team observes what plants are at each sampling station, what percentage of the cover they are; how much of the area is bare soil; how many shrubs are in the area; tree growth in the area; and nutrients, soil compaction, and the balance between bacteria and fungus in the microbiology of the soil.
“The results of this research will be a good start at providing us with a baseline of data that can be used to continue development of this kind of approach,” Haugen observed.