Given the variety of outdoor recreation that can be enjoyed on Rocky Mountain ranches for sale, it can be easy to overlook the fact that true ranching – the actual process of grazing livestock on land – can be one of the most important tools for maintaining the overall health of a ranch’s plant and wildlife habitat. Even for those recreational-minded landowners who are primarily interested in fly fishing, big game hunting, wing shooting, camping, or hiking, it is important that they understand how grazing can positively or negatively affect their ranch.
There is a contingent of non-ranching landowners and buyers who believe that the best way to return a ranch to its “natural state” is to remove all livestock and cease any grazing on the property. Their thinking is that the grasses and other plants will be able to grow wild, without being eaten by livestock. The reality, as described in Jim Howell’s excellent book For the Love of Land, is that many of North America’s native grasses evolved with the intention of being grazed, and without grazing, the grasses do not grow or reproduce as they were designed to do.
Tens of thousands of years ago, before cows (or even humans) arrived in North America, the land was populated with huge migrating herds of grazing animals – bison, elk, sheep, pronghorn, deer. Prior to that, during the Pleistocene era about 1.8 million years ago, there were even several species of camels and llamas inhabiting the land. These massive herds would graze a certain area, trample it down with their hooves, and then continue moving along to new areas. Grasses evolved to thrive under this pattern of severe grazing and trampling followed by rest and recovery. Grazing was the method for removing previous years’ old or dead growth, and trampling was the method of “planting” grass seeds into the soil.
So while the bison herds have been reduced from 60 million down to a few thousand and camels are nowhere to be found, research has shown that many of our grasses are surprisingly similar to their state tens of thousands of years ago. These grasses are designed to be grazed – they need some sort of animal to defoliate (eat) them so they can survive, and also to stomp and grind their seeds into the ground so they can reproduce. Cows are now the primary large-scale grazers in North America, and, with proper management, they can be used to keep the grasses on a ranch healthy and strong.
One example in For the Love of Land compares the grass in Canyonlands National Park (where grazing is prohibited) to the same exact species of grass growing just outside the Park boundary (where grazing is allowed). Inside Canyonlands, Howell describes huge expanses of land covered with grass that has died because of an “overburden of dead material” in the center of the plants due to the absence of grazing. Just outside the park boundary, the same species of grass are “living and vigorous” due to the livestock periodically defoliating the grass, which prevents dead material from accumulating and killing the plants.
It is important to note that extreme overgrazing grazing can be just as or more harmful than a complete lack of grazing because, if given the chance, livestock will easily eat the grasses down so low that they are not able to recover and grow. These grasses did not evolve based on the idea that they would be grazed day after day, year after year, with no opportunity to recover and regrow.
The final 2/3 of For the Love of Land is a compilation of grazing case studies from around the globe, describing methods of grazing that simultaneously allow the grasses and ecosystem to flourish, while also allowing for a profitable livestock operation. The case studies are highly educational and also entertaining, and present a strong case for why “grazing in nature’s image” can be a wise and profitable method for managing land. After reading Howell’s book, even landowners with little or no interest in ranching will have a greater appreciation for using grazing as a tool to keep their ranch’s ecosystem as healthy as possible.