A Beginner’s Guide to Conservation Grazing – Part 2

Designing a Grazing Strategy For Your Objectives

In a recent post, I tried to lay out some of the basic requirements and logistics of grazing a prairie, as well as some of the objectives that grazing might help achieve.  In this sequel, I dive more deeply into examples of how various grazing approaches might actually reach those objectives.  While there are numerous potential objectives you might have for the management of your prairie, I’m focusing on three examples here: Diversifying Habitat Structure, Reducing Dominant Grasses, and Suppressing Aggressive or Invasive Plants.

Cattle grazing can be good for plant diversity, while also creating a wide range of habitat conditions for wildlife and invertebrates. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Objective: Diversify Habitat Structure

Improving habitat heterogeneity might be the most important application of grazing in prairies, and the biggest reason you might want to implement grazing in the first place.  To accommodate all the habitat needs of animals, from tiny invertebrates to large mammals, a prairie should always have habitat patches that represent a wide range of vegetation height and density.  Some areas could be currently or recently intensively grazed, with short vegetation and areas of exposed bare ground.  Others could be recovering from intensive grazing, with lots of wildflowers and other ‘opportunistic’ plants taking advantage of temporarily weakened grasses.  Still other patches could be fully or nearly fully recovered, with tall and dense vegetation structure.

Plant species need favorable growing conditions periodically, but most or all species can also withstand a couple of years of less ideal conditions.  As long as they get to flourish and reproduce every few years, most plants will persist – as they have for thousands of years of dynamic and unpredictable growing conditions caused by fire, drought, grazing, flooding, and/or other disturbances.  If you provide the opposite of that dynamism by managing an entire prairie the same way each year, some plants may thrive every year, but others may never get the conditions they need, putting them at risk of dying out (the same can be true for animals).

Creating a shifting mosaic of habitat patches helps ensure that all potential grassland habitat types are always available somewhere in a prairie for the animals that need them.  The basic approach is to split a prairie into management units (habitat patches) and then manage them so that each contributes toward a broad spectrum of vegetation structure types  –  very short in some patches, very tall/dense in others, and mixed height/density in the rest.  Then, you can just change the location of each of those habitat types year to year. The approach also means that individual plant species will experience positive growing conditions at least once every several years, allowing them to persist – though maybe not at the same population levels you’d see if they got their favorite growing conditions each year.

Some grazing approaches are specifically designed to accomplish this, including patch-burn grazing and open gate rotational grazing, but those are just examples, and broad templates that can be adapted.  Creative people will be able to come up with approaches that match their individual sites, logistical challenges, and needs for vegetation and/or livestock production.  The key is to have patches spread across your prairie that are in various stages of grazing and recovery.  In addition, it can be important to have patches that are grazed hard enough and long enough that they don’t recover too quickly. 

Habitat heterogeneity created by open gate rotational grazing at our family prairie. Top left: the first pasture in the rotation, grazed all season. Top right: the second pasture provided to the cattle (in conjunction with the first), with short vegetation, but more cover than the first pasture. Bottom left: the pasture grazed hardest the previous year and rested for the current season. Lots of weakened, recovering grasses and opportunistic forbs. Bottom right: ungrazed the previous year and only grazed at the end of the current year (after the photo was taken), with lots of tall/dense vegetation. Click on the image to see a bigger version of it.

Many traditional rotational grazing strategies recommend only allowing cattle to remove half or less of the vegetation in a paddock before moving them into the next.  This means the vegetation recovers quickly and can lead to a bunch of grazing paddocks that all have roughly the same height and density of vegetation – without the important short/sparse and tall/dense ends of the habitat spectrum.  Those grazing systems were designed for maintaining grass dominance, not habitat or plant diversity.

Other grazing approaches advocate for rotational grazing with lots of paddocks and intensive but very short-duration grazing (followed by long rest periods) in each paddock.  This reduces the amount of total area across the prairie that is in short structure at any one time because paddocks start recovering very shortly after grazing happens.  The high density of animals can also cause trampling issues for wildlife and force cattle to eat low quality forage, leading to reduced livestock performance.

While it is often maligned as outdated and inefficient, season-long grazing, in which cattle are simply allowed to roam around one big pasture all season, can actually create a good range of habitat structure.  Cattle tend to develop favorite grazing areas (aka grazing lawns), based on factors like the palatability of plants, topography, and proximity to water or shade.  They spend more time grazing their favorite spots than others, creating a mix of short and tall vegetation.  After multiple years, some favorite spots eventually become less productive or see less growth from tasty plants, and cattle will move away from them and find new favorites. 

As a result, season-long grazed pastures create a kind of shifting mosaic, but in very slow motion.  It’s not well-understood – as far as I know – exactly how this approach (with a reasonable stocking rate) affects plant diversity.  It’s also unclear how wildlife and invertebrates respond to season-long grazing’s pattern of many small grazing lawns and rested areas compared to the fewer, larger habitat patches found in other shifting mosaic situations.

This grazing lawn was created by cattle because they had the option to graze anywhere they wanted and hit the big bluestem hard in this area. The contrast between grazing lawns and nearby ungrazed vegetation creates habitat heterogeneity, but at a different scale than systems like patch-burn or open gate grazing. Are these lawns big enough habitat patches to provide for the needs of birds and other animals who prefer that short habitat structure? The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Objective: Reducing Grass Dominance

In some prairies, some grass species tend to become so dominant that they reduce the vigor, and eventually the diversity, of other plant species.  Grazing, especially by cattle or other grass-selective animals, can help reduce the competitiveness of those grasses.  A good shifting mosaic approach to grazing, as discussed above, is already designed to prevent grasses from reducing plant diversity, so adoption of that approach will probably solve the problem. 

However, there are also ways to use very targeted grazing practices to reduce grass vigor.  One option is to simply allow cattle access to the entire prairie once every few years.  Because they prefer grasses over most other plants, they will spend most of their time eating those grasses and cropping many of them almost to the ground.  That won’t kill the grasses, but those plants will need a couple years of recovery to get their dominance back.  Cattle will eat other plants as well, but as long as the grazing doesn’t occur every year, those plants will also recover.  See the last paragraph of the above section for the questions and potential pitfalls of this kind of season-long grazing.

If you want to target a particular aggressive grass species, see the next section.

Objective: Suppressing Aggressive or Invasive Plants

When targeting a particular plant species, the first step is to find out how cattle respond to the invasive plant.  Do they like to eat it?  If so, is there a particular time of year when they most like to eat it?  What is its seasonal growth pattern? 

If the invasive species is more palatable than many other species around it, using grazing can be pretty simple.  Cattle may keep the invasive plants cropped down for as long as they have access to the area, which means that many of the shifting mosaic approaches discussed earlier might work well.  You might simply tweak your general approach to better address the invasive plant as you watch and learn over a few years (see the example at the end of this post).

If the invasive plant is palatable, but not necessarily more than other plants, you might try putting cattle into the prairie only during the invasive plant’s period of peak growth and flowering.  The timing may need to be tweaked based on what you see for responses, but a relatively short-term pulse of grazing might be effective.  Don’t repeat this too many years in a row, however, or you’ll likely start negatively impacting other plants with a similar growth schedule.  The goal of this kind of grazing is not to eradicate an invasive plant, just to suppress it enough that it doesn’t perennially dominate the plant community.

Cattle are not only objectively cute, they can also help with invasive species issues. These cattle had just been put into a pasture with an abundance of smooth brome (Bromus inermis), an invasive grass. They’ll graze it hard for a brief period of time and then be moved out to allow other plants to take over some of the territory released by the weakened brome plants.


Real World Example:

At my family prairie, we use cattle grazing for multiple purposes.  Our overall approach is the open gate rotational system, which creates really nice habitat heterogeneity and plant diversity.  However, I also tweak the open gate approach a little to particularly target smooth brome and sweet clover – two invasive plants.  The adjustments vary each year, based on what I see, but here’s what I did this year. 

When the cattle first came to the pasture in late April, rather than installing them in the first pasture of the open gate rotation, we instead had them spend about a week in each of the other three pastures first.  That allowed the cattle to grub down both the smooth brome and sweet clover, which were among their favorite plants at that time of year.  Once that quick rotation was done, we put them into the initial pasture of the open gate system.  By the end of the year, the cattle had access to three out of the four pastures, so they were hitting the sweet clover hard there, and any smooth brome that started to green up as well (not much this year, given how dry the late summer and fall were). 

In mid-October, when it was about time to pull the cattle out, I noticed that the fourth pasture (ungrazed except for the brief period in the spring) had a lot of big first-year sweet clover plants.  In order to knock back the vigor of those plants, and because I knew the cattle would see those big leafy legumes as a treat, I asked the lessee to put the cattle in that pasture for the last week of the season before pulling them out.  During that week, they hit the sweet clover hard, and nipped the tops off some other late-season plants.  However, the cattle were in for a short-enough period of time that they didn’t stomp down the tall vegetation structure, which will be good winter cover for wildlife. 

Sweet clover doesn’t seem to be a major invasive threat in this part of the state, but smooth brome certainly is.  In most years, their growth period and attractiveness to cattle are similar enough that I can lump them together when thinking about strategies.  Over the years, using cattle to particularly target those two species, while also focusing on the broader shifting habitat mosaic seems to make a winning combination.

At our family prairie, cattle help us create a wide range of habitat structure types, but also help suppress invasive plants. Oh, and by the way, the income from the grazing lease helps pay off the mortgage and cover property taxes.

Design and Adapt Your Own Strategy:

Every prairie has its own unique challenges.  Grazing isn’t appropriate for every prairie, and if it is used, the approach needs to be specifically tailored to your site and objectives, and then adapted frequently as you watch and learn.  While there are lessons you can learn by talking to others, the way individual cattle respond to a particular plants at an individual site is hard to completely predict – and it tends to change year to year.  After all, you’re dealing with a bunch of sentient creatures that make their own decisions about what they want to eat, where they want to eat it, and where they want to poop, rest, and stomp around.

Because of the variability and somewhat unpredictability of grazing, it’s critically important not to be overly rigid in your expectations.  Remember that you can – and should – always adjust the next year’s grazing or other management based on what happened the previous year.  If you felt like the prairie was grazed harder than you wanted it to be, reduce the stocking rate the following year, or otherwise find ways to allow the site to recover.  Prairies are incredibly resilient and there is almost no way to completely screw up a prairie with a single year’s worth of grazing.  Be experimental, observant, and adaptable, and you’ll be just fine.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Conservation Grazing – Part 2

  1. You never answered my question before about how you feel when you see a herd of cattle (or bison) grazing. So, I’ll tell you how I feel. It is quite simple. I feel a sense of security. I know the rancher has food and for a price I will be able to eat.

    However, I don’t like to see sections of land planted in bluegrass and grazed to golf course height. The way you manage grazing is much better for wildlife. I have seen a prairie restoration in Kane County, IL where grazing was being used as a management tool. I thought it looked pretty good. Although small Juniper virginiana were more abundant than I typically see in restorations.

    I’m not sure the mosaic pattern of grazing meshes with the ecology of rare plants that are thought to need this kind of disturbance. Rare plants tend to inhabit specific locations. They might not be able to move fast enough to capitalize on a rapidly shifting mosaic. It might be that plants like Solidago shortii or Paysonia perforate might need a more continual disturbance regime. In contrast, other rare plants need a situation with minimal disturbance from grazing.

    I’ve been told that at Nachusa, the bison have largely avoided the remnant prairies. In retrospect, this is not completely surprising. The remnants probably survived because they were on dry knobs that did not produce vegetation that grazers found to be very palatable. Nachusa is also reporting that the bison are eating things other than grasses, like sedges and forbs. I think grazers simple go after what is the most tender and nutritious. The bison spend most of their time in the fields between the remnant prairies where prairie reconstruction is occurring. The bison also seemed to really like all the weeds that popped up after tree clearing was done.

    If grazers don’t prefer remnant prairies, I could see how over time conservative species would be able to expand into prairie reconstructions as grazers reduce the vigor of dominating species. This would be dependent on care being taken to not over stock to the point that grazers had to forage on the more meager offerings that are typical of remnant prairie. It will be interesting to see the results of monitoring at Nachusa over the coming years.

    • James – I guess what I feel when I see cattle is a kind of comfort (most of the time) that one of the important forces in our prairies is present and functioning.

      In terms of rare plants in a shifting mosaic, I’m certainly not saying the plants should move around with the mosaic. Instead, they might be grazed some years and not others. Or, depending upon their needs, they might be released from grass competition, shade, or other factors in years of grazing and perform better in those years. It depends upon why they’re rare. With a shifting mosaic approach, the idea is that the plants can hunker down under management that doesn’t favor them and thrive when it does. As I said, most plants can handle that mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ years. I’m sure there are exceptions to that, and those need to be dealt with individually – either by excluding grazing from where the rare plants exist, excluding grazing from the entire prairie, or finding ways to minimize any negative impacts from grazing when it occurs.

      Bison absolutely eat lots of plants other than grasses – as do cattle. But both are still primarily grass feeders and their whole digestive system is built to accommodate that. They just manage their diets very effectively to match their nutritional needs. Yes, it will be fascinating to watch the continued grazing at Nachusa and they’re doing a terrific job of studying that so we can all learn with them.

      • In last years annual report from Nachusa, it was reported the bison ate 1/3 wildflowers and legumes. Considering no preference between grass and forbs would be a ratio of 1/2, the selectivity towards grazing grasses at Nachusa is much less than what you have observed in Nebraska. You reported, “Research has shown that forbs typically make up less than 10 % the diet of bison …” (The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States, pp. 121) Possibly the bison at Nachusa are eating more “wildflowers and legumes”, or as you call them “forbs”, because in the eastern tallgrass prairie region our prairies are more forb rich. The Nachusa annual report also mentioned more diversity was observed in areas grazed by bison. However, I would be more interested in knowing shifts in the coefficient of conservatism.

        • I think it would make sense that bison would eat a higher percentage of forbs when forbs make a higher percentage of the total available forage, but I don’t know enough about the study and results to have a good response.

          • I forwarded an e-mail I received with Blackburn’s paper on bison diets. I’ll read this paper again tonight.

            Honestly, the reason bison are probably eating more forbs and legumes at Nachusa is because many had been previously introduced by ranchers to improve grazing for cattle. There is a lot of white and yellow sweet clover, bird’s-foot trefoil, and red clover. In particular, I see a lot of red clover in the bison pasture. Red clover seems to like grazing.

            This is not a plus for me because I have spent a lot of time manually removing red clover from degraded remnants. In addition to excluding grazing from areas with rare plants, maybe grazing should also be excluded from old pastures being restored in advance of any effort to control red clover. I think of red clover as more of a cosmetic issue, but it is very difficult to remove it manually from quality areas. As areas grade to lower quality there is so much red clover that little progress can be made by one person using manual methods. The solution to this has been to spray the red clover with herbicide, which ends up impacting other things These are the difficult decisions that must be made when labor is very limited but the invasive species appear to be almost infinite..

  2. Fascinating and instructive article; and much in contrast to grazing techniques being advocated for grazing on federal lands in my past experience, strongly oriented to reduce selectivity. Many mixed prairie sites however don’t have the forb component of the tallgrass prairie. After observing sweet clover over decades from eastern SD to western Montana, the clover fluctuates dramatically with native composition seemingly unaffected in the long term. I ask if it does in fact occupy a niche unavailable to other native plants?

    • Hi Gary,
      I’m glad you found it interesting. My experience with sweet clover here is very similar to what you describe. I’ve got long-term data from our Platte River Prairies showing just that – sweet clover fluctuating up and down between years, without changing the plant species composition around it. Observationally, the same seems to be true at our family prairie. Both are in the mixed-grass ecoregion, though our Platte sites have some sub-irrigation that makes them act more like tallgrass prairie. As a result, we don’t worry about sweet clover on the Platte and I attack it on our family prairie (with grazing) primarily for aesthetic reasons and because it’s a no-regrets approach because the same grazing targets smooth brome at the same time.

      Having said all that, I know several very experienced land managers in places like Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois who see sweet clover as a much more serious threat and I have no reason to doubt them. What is ‘recreational’ weed control for us seems to be a much more serious business elsewhere. I know some of them are using grazing as a way to suppress it.

      Thanks for the great comment/question!

  3. Too bad grazing isn’t a practical tool for us owners of small plots of prairie. Any thoughts on management on smaller non-grazable plots of prairie?

    • It’s tricky, isn’t it? I wrote a post many years ago on this topic that you might find useful. https://prairieecologist.com/2012/03/05/how-should-we-manage-small-prairies/ If a small prairie is isolated from other prairie habitat, it’s extremely important to consider that any management action that might kill most or all of a species (especially invertebrates) will extirpate that species from the prairie and it may never recolonize. Burning the entire prairie, then, regardless of the season, is a very risky endeavor. It’s important to leave refuges from any management action in case that action has a severe impact on species.

      Apart from that, part of small prairie management is setting reasonable expectations/objectives. You’ll not have prairie chickens, or even a lot of other grassland bird species, but you might be able to host a fairly viable population of some plants and invertebrates (but see above). Long-term, however, the viability of most species in a small prairie is tenuous. Ideally, you’d find ways to increase the size of the prairie by restoring nearby habitats, but that’s not always feasible. If you can’t, trying to preserve long-term diversity becomes really tough. Lots of things out of your control (diseases, floods, droughts, nitrogen deposition) can potentially wipe out a species, either immediately or over time, and it may not come back. That means you might see a steady decline in diversity over decades or longer, even if you do everything right.

      While that’s depressing, there is a lot of value in small prairies, and you might think about how yours might contribute to larger conservation – by being a source of seeds for restoration projects, as an example. Or even a source of invertebrates that might be missing in nearby prairies. How can you use your prairie to help communicate the value and beauty of prairies to others, thereby supporting prairie conservation in general? etc.

      In terms of specific management options, I’d consider being as creative as you can about providing habitat heterogeneity. Mix up your management treatments in various ways. If you burn, burn a portion (maybe 1/3 to 1/2 at a time) and burn different areas each time – varying the season and intensity of the fires. Mowing or haying gives you a lot of options for leaving refuges of various sizes, and you can also vary the height and timing of the cuts. There’s also no rule that you have to mow large square blocks. You can mow curly-Q trails and lots of small patches as a way to break up the monotony of dense vegetation around them.

      Despite my comments about how tough it is to sustain diversity in small prairies, many have done an impressive job of that so far, and will probably continue for quite a while – especially with good management. And right now, every little bit of prairie matters, so feel good about yours. Use it as a place to learn, a place for you to gain peace and understanding about nature and prairies, and think about what else it might be able to contribute to prairie conservation.

      And if there’s any possibility of restoring nearby areas – do it!!

      Good luck.

      • Stephen Packard likes to use a scythe to, as Chris likes to say, “selectively graze” tall grasses that dominate restorations. Some volunteers talk about when haying was done with a scythe and the farmer’s arms were as big as their thighs. Unfortunately, scything is an art that is not often seen anymore.

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