Open Gate Rotational Grazing

An alternative approach to facilitating wildlife and plant diversity in grazed prairie.

Based on the last 20 years of experience and data collection, the shifting mosaic approach to habitat management seems to support plant and animal diversity and foster ecological resilience in our prairies.  One of the most important parts of our shifting mosaic management is that each patch of prairie goes through a progression of season-long intensive grazing, followed by a multi-year recovery period.  At any time, only part of a prairie is in each phase of the system (intensive grazing, early recovery, late recovery), so there is always a variety of habitat structure available (short, “weedy” and tall) for wildlife.  In addition, as that grazing/recovery progression occurs, plant species experience a different set of growing conditions each year.  Regardless of its competition ability or strategy, each plant is ensured favorable conditions for its growth and reproduction at least once every few years.  Based on our long-term data sets, our management has sustained plant species richness, and both conservative and opportunistic plant species are persisting in our prairies.

A fenceline contrast at our family prairie shows the kind of habitat heterogeneity found in a shifting mosaic approach to prairie management.

Patch-burn grazing is one way to create a shifting mosaic, but it’s certainly not the only way.  While patch-burn grazing has some attributes that make it easy to implement (no need for cross fences or moving animals during the season), it does require regular application of prescribed fire, which can be difficult for some landowners.  In addition, patch-burn grazing is very different from the kinds of rotational grazing systems many ranchers are comfortable with and have set up their pastures for.  We’ve been experimenting with an approach to creating a shifting mosaic that keeps many of the wildlife and diversity-friendly attributes of patch-burn grazing but might fit better within the comfort zone and logistical framework of many ranchers.

For lack of a better idea, I’m currently calling this approach “Open Gate Rotational Grazing”.  It is not a rigid prescribed grazing system, but rather a general and adaptable way of managing multiple grazing paddocks within a prairie.  It’s similar to a traditional deferred grazing strategy, but with one big difference.  In most rotational grazing systems, cattle are moved from one pasture to the next, closing the gate behind them to allow the previous paddocks to rest.  In the open gate system, when cattle are presented with their next paddock, the gate behind them remains open – allowing the cattle to continue grazing the initial paddock even as they have access to new grass.

In a traditional rotational grazing system, cattle are progressively moved through a series of paddocks, closing the gate behind them.  In a deferred rotational system, at least one paddock is usually rested for the season.

Under an open gate approach, gates are left open when new paddocks are made available, allowing cattle to graze both the new paddock and the one(s) they had been grazing before.

The idea started one year when we weren’t able to get a burn done in a prairie under patch-burn grazing management.  Since we didn’t have a burned patch to focus cattle grazing, we instead used electric fence to concentrate the cattle in the area we’d hoped to burn.  We kept them in the enclosure until they had it grazed pretty short.  Then we removed the electric fence and allowed cattle to access to the whole site.  For the remainder of the season, the cattle continued to focus most of their grazing in that former enclosure, attracted by the tender regrowth.  As a result, the overall grazing pattern was fairly similar to what we’d expect with patch-burn grazing.  Seeing how strongly cattle were drawn back to where they’d grazed earlier provided the seed for the open gate rotational system.

On my family prairie, I’ve been using the open gate approach for the last several years.  I have four paddocks, and I basically think of the gates between those paddocks as relief valves.  We start with the cattle in one paddock, and when they have grazed most of the grass down in that pasture, I open the gate to an adjacent paddock so they have more options.  The cattle can keep grazing the regrowing plants in paddock #1, but they aren’t forced to eat more than they want to in that paddock because they have another whole paddock available to them.  If the cattle graze down most of the plants in the second paddock, I can open a gate to a third paddock and provide them with even more options.  I keep the fourth paddock closed off for the entire season so it can rest.  I choose a different paddock to start with each year.

The result of an open gate approach is that one paddock is grazed all season long, one is rested all season, and the others have intermediate levels of grazing.  This results in heterogeneity of habitat structure as well as a wide range of growing conditions for plants.  Each year, grazing starts in a different place, shifting the disturbance regimes among the various paddocks.

The open gate approach can be used with just about any rotational grazing system, as long as there are adjacent paddocks that can be opened up.  One key component of the open gate approach is that paddocks grazed early in the season continue to receive grazing pressure for the rest of that season without forcing cattle to eat progressively lower quality forage as the season goes on.  Instead, cattle can regulate their diet freely, choosing between previously grazed areas and those they haven’t yet grazed.  Typically, when cattle are given that kind of choice, they eat very little other than grasses.  This works out well for pollinators because it means many wildflowers are allowed to grow and flower amongst grazed grasses.

At our family prairie, the open gate approach seems to be helping with our continuing quest to increase plant diversity in areas formerly dominated by grasses.  New plants are introduced via overseeding (after a season of intensive grazing), and then persist under our grazing management.

In the open gate system, there is great flexibility about when, and how intensively, each paddock is grazed each year, though some of that flexibility depends on how the paddocks are arranged.  Ideally, all the paddocks would be connected through a single hub so the manager can choose to open any gate to any pasture, as needed.  However, my family prairie doesn’t provide that amount of flexibility (the four paddocks are arrayed in a donut-like loop, with no way to connect them through the donut hole) and the approach still works.  Most of the time, the paddock grazed most intensively one year gets complete rest the next.  However, the pattern of grazing each year always depends upon how I think recovery from previous years’ grazing is going.

I think there are great benefits to longer grazing periods and longer rest periods than are typically found in rotational grazing systems.  Certainly, those prolonged grazing and rest periods can provide a greater variety of wildlife habitat conditions, especially on the shorter and taller ends of the vegetation structure spectrum.  In most rotational grazing systems, cattle are moved out of a pasture before grasses are grazed very short, allowing them to recover quickly.  In addition to reducing habitat heterogeneity, that approach can favor strong grass dominance at the expense of wildflowers and plant diversity.

Even when grazing pressure is intense within each paddock of a traditional rotational system, short duration grazing may not foster habitat heterogeneity.  For example, if a paddock is grazed hard in May, it might suppress cool-season grasses, but warm-season grasses won’t be much affected, and once cattle are removed, summer vegetation will fill in quickly, resulting in vegetation structure of moderate to tall height.  The same can happen with summer grazing bouts followed by fall growth of cool-season grasses.  By maintaining grazing pressure for the entire growing season, two things happen.  First, there is sustained short vegetation structure for wildlife that need it.  Second, and perhaps more important, all dominant grasses are weakened by that long term grazing, leading to a fairly long recovery period (1-3 years, depending upon grazing intensity and geographic location), during which wildflowers and other plant species are temporarily released from that grass competition.  That long recovery period creates terrific wildlife habitat and also helps sustain plant diversity.

While prescribed fire isn’t necessary in open gate rotational grazing, it can certainly be incorporated.  The paddock to be grazed all season could be burned before the season starts, for example, which would further add to its attractiveness to livestock (and remove eastern red cedar trees, excess litter, etc.).  At my own prairie, I haven’t been using fire for a variety of reasons, including that I’m so busy burning for work I don’t have time/energy to burn my own place.  So far, I’ve been happy with the way the prairie is responding in the absence of fire, but if I can get myself better organized, I wouldn’t mind doing some burning.  If nothing else, it would mean less time cutting little cedar trees with loppers.

Prescribed fire is not a strategy all ranchers are willing or able to include in their operations.  The open gate approach provides options for creating a shifting habitat mosaic without relying on regular prescribed fire.

I don’t have many years of experience with this open gate approach, or much data to help me understand all the nuances of its impacts on flora and fauna.  However, what I’ve seen from early experiments seems promising.  I’m sharing the idea and our experiences so far, not because I’m endorsing the open gate approach as the next big thing, but because I hope others might find ways to try it and report back.  Because the basic idea is as simple as not closing a gate when opening a new paddock, it can be employed in many different scenarios if people see potential for it.  Also, I’m not trying to claim or patent the idea, and I’d be shocked if there aren’t people reading this that have already tried it in various forms.  If so, I’d love to hear about it.

Trying to Create Something Different in the Nebraska Sandhills

At our Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP), we’re experimenting with prairie management techniques to see if we can create a wider range of habitat conditions than is found throughout much of the Nebraska Sandhills.  On many Sandhills ranches, pastures look fairly similar to each other in terms of vegetation structure.  That’s because Sandhills ranchers tend to be careful in their grazing management to avoid wind erosion that can cause “blowouts” of bare sand.  As a result, pastures are rarely grazed intensively enough to create wide expanses of bare ground.  If intensive grazing does happen, it’s usually on a small scale and/or for short periods of time, which allows for quick recovery of grasses.

The Nebraska Sandhills have tremendous innate heterogeneity.  Just in this photo, you can see areas of bare sand created by pocket gophers and/or other animals, habitat structure created by various kinds of plants, including grasses, wildflowers, yucca, and shrubs.  Vegetation height varies greatly across small areas.

Overall, the ecology of the Nebraska Sandhills seems very healthy.  It’s a huge and mostly intact grassland landscape, and because of the dry sandy soils, topography and diversity of vegetation, there is quite a bit of habitat heterogeneity that is independent of management.  As you walk across most Sandhills pastures, you will move through both short/sparse vegetation and taller/dense vegetation, and occasionally come across other structural components like yucca plants or plum thickets.  Wildlife and insect species can often find the habitat structure they need somewhere in that pasture, though it might be in a small patch surrounded by other habitat types.  That seems to be true even for many bird species, which have relatively large breeding territories.  As an example, in pastures with fairly tall vegetation, we often see and hear horned larks that are (apparently) nesting in a few small and scattered patches of the short vegetation structure they prefer.  Those patches of short habitat often occur in gravelly flat areas or in favorite feeding areas for cattle, where grass growth is weak because of frequent grazing.

This late July photo shows a portion of our west bison pasture that was burned this spring and has been grazed intensively by bison all year. Because bison are in the pasture year round, they had immediate access to the burned area and started grazing regrowth as soon as it was available.

We’re trying to figure out more about how management with patch-burn grazing or other similar grazing systems affects Sandhills ecology.  Patch-burn grazing has part of the management of our bison pastures at NVP since the early 1990’s.  Because of that, we know Sandhills vegetation can recover from fires that are followed immediately by season-long intensive grazing.  However, we still don’t know much about how many animal species might respond – positively or negatively – to the kind of large patch heterogeneity created by this kind of management.  Instead of pastures with interspersed small areas of tall and short vegetation, we’re trying to create large patches (500-1000 acre patches within 10,000-12,000 acre pastures) of each habitat type and then shift the location of those patches between years.

Plains sunflower (an annual) often becomes very abundant after fires because it germinates well in exposed soil and then thrives in the absence of strong competition from perennial grasses.  This is the current year’s burn patch in our east bison pasture, where plains sunflower tall and blooming, surrounded by short-cropped grasses.

Creating large patches of various habitat types could bring both advantages and disadvantages to different species.  As an example, large patches could create an abundance of resources that support larger and more viable populations of some animal species. On the other hand, a vole who likes thatchy habitat could wake up in the middle of a 1000 acre burn, and it would have to make a long dangerous trip to find a more suitable place to live.  Trying to evaluate those potential costs and benefits is a big challenge for us.

This landscape shot shows the abundance of plains sunflower across the entire burned patch.

One possible advantage of the kind of shifting mosaic of habitat approach we’re trying is that it helps avoid risks that come from having the same habitat conditions in the same place year after year.  Just as crop rotation can help avoid buildups of pests and pathogens, shifting habitat types from place to place could have important benefits.  For example varying the location of habitat types from year to year could limit disease outbreaks and help prevent predators or herbivores from building up large and potentially destabilizing populations.

Showy evening primrose, aka fourpoint evening primrose (Oenothera rhombipetala) where the prairie was burned in 2015 and grazed intensively in both 2015 and 2016.  This opportunistic biennial is taking advantage of a long period where grasses are weakened by prior intensive grazing and haven’t yet recovered.

The most intriguing part of our experimentation for me, though, is the idea that we could create large ‘recovery patches’ where grasses have been weakened by a full season of intensive grazing and the plant community is temporarily dominated by opportunistic, mostly short-lived plant species.  That combination of short grasses and tall ‘weedy’ wildflowers can provide excellent brood-rearing habitat for some birds and important structure for reptiles and invertebrates that need to regulate their body temperature by moving quickly from sun to shade as needed.  Studies in other landscapes have shown that this kind of recovery patch habitat creates pulses of high insect biomass, which could have numerous impacts – including the provision of an awful lot of food for wildlife.  In addition, if an abundance of opportunistic plants include species beneficial to pollinators, that could provide quite a bonanza of resources for bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Zoomed out

In most of the Sandhills, patches of  ‘weedy’ habitat tend to be in small, static and widely scattered locations such as around windmills or other places where cattle or bison frequently congregate.  We’re wondering what might happen if we created big patches of the same habitat type and shifted their location from year to year.  In our Platte River Prairies, patch-burn grazing (and similar strategies) has sustained prairie plant diversity over many years, but we haven’t looked closely for similar responses in the Sandhills.  In addition, we know a little about how birds respond to patch-burn grazing in the Sandhills, but not much about impacts on other species like lizards, pollinators, small mammals, or invertebrates.  Now we’re trying to collect data on the responses from all those different organisms.

The lesser earless lizard is often found in and around sand blowouts or other habitat patches with abundant bare sand.  Will they respond positively to much larger patches of sparse vegetation?  Can they successfully shift their population locations as we burn/graze new sites?

Will pollinators such as this plasterer bee (Colletes sp) benefit from higher abundances of flowering plants in big patches of Sandhills prairie that are recovering from season-long intensive grazing?

This is part of our east bison pasture that hasn’t burned since 2012, and has been only lightly grazed during that time period.  It should support a different array of wildlife and allow different plant species to thrive than more recently-grazed areas.  Providing a wide range of habitat types across the prairie seems beneficial for biological diversity, but we still need to test that idea in the Sandhills.

I’ve really enjoyed digging into all the questions we have about our attempts to create more habitat heterogeneity in the Sandhills.  We haven’t had time to answer many questions yet, but we feel like we’re at least creating something different than what exists throughout most of the Sandhills landscape.  A few years from now, we might conclude that the heterogeneity we created didn’t really result in any significant positive or negative impacts compared to what exists elsewhere.  If that’s the conclusion, we’ll move forward with that in mind.  On the other hand, we might find that there are some important positive (and/or negative) impacts of the shifting mosaic approach we’re testing.  In the meantime, it’s exciting to have the opportunity to try something different and watch what happens.  Stay tuned…

If nothing else, huge populations of Plains sunflower like this one in our west bison pasture provide a different (and I think beautiful) look to parts of the Sandhills landscape at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.