Having the right number of cattle on the right piece of land for the right amount of time for the right reasons may be one of the most powerful tools ranchers have to ensure long-term sustainability, a Washington State University specialist believes.
"This is a major paradigm shift," says Donald Nelson, a WSU Extension beef specialist in the Department of Animal Sciences. "We're using grazing as a tool to create a desirable future landscape and sustainable ecosystems," he says. "Planned grazing mimics natural cycles, which typically are most efficient economically and biologically."
Nelson spearheaded Beefing Up the Palouse, a demonstration project in eastern Washington to develop alternatives for farmers with land soon to come out of the federal government Conservation Reserve Program.
That program has paid growers from $50 to $80 an acre on the Palouse not to grow anything on what is usually marginal or highly erodible farm land in an effort to reduce soil erosion and improve wildlife habitat.
The CRP program has come under extreme fire for its impact on local communities as farms are taken out of production and rural businesses once dependent on agriculture saw a decrease in income. Local tax revenues were also diluted with an accompanying impact on school and police and fire department revenues.
More than 1.5 million Washington acres are enrolled in the 10- to 15-year CRP contracts. A significant portion of this acreage is nearing the contract end over the next several years, leaving farmers wondering hot to make the marginal land profitable.
One criticism of the CRP program has been that while marginal acres were intended to be the choice of land for the plan, many times good, productive land went into the contracts.
Nelson's research shows that science and market conditions favor several options for use of the land.
For example, because most CRP land has had no chemical applications for at least a decade, it can be certified organic almost immediately, making it suitable as organic cattle pasture or for growing organic hay in demand among dairies producing milk from feed that has not been treated with pesticides.
For more information, Nelson may be contacted at (509) 335-2806 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.