Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Grazing in Oklahoma

They were using horses to move the cattle to the corral in the distance
I'm spending most of the month of August on the road, just popping home long enough to do laundry and swap out gear. Last week I visited Kerr Ranch in Oklahoma and the Booneville Plant Materials Center in Arkansas. My work has been focused lately on exploring pollinator habitat enhancement with land management techniques like grazing and fire, so visiting the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Poteau, Oklahoma was a real treat.

Opening 'maypop' (Passiflora incarnata) on fence. Larval host to gulf fritillary.
Poteau sits on the Poteau River in the Ouachita Mountains, a western extension of the Ozarks. I was shocked at how this land resembled the Virginia piedmont near where I grew up. The trees were different, but the terrain was much the same. David Redhage, the Kerr Center's agricultural economist and Director of Ranch Operations, drove me around to see some of the pollinator habitat on the Center's 4,000 acres. The Kerr Center practices rotational grazing and silvopasture. They also have some acres devoted to loblolly pine. Most interesting to me, they were experimenting with incorporating pollinator plants in their hedgerows, fence lines, and native pastures. David's had a personal interest in pollinators since the 90's, so he's really jumped in with both feet now that pollinators are an ecological buzzword. 

I get a lot of joy out of working with ranchers on native pastures because there is so much potential. Some level of careful grazing can often increase the presence of blooming plants in our native prairies. The landowner can improve wildlife habitat while still making a living. The theory is this: our tallgrass and mixed grass prairies evolved with grazing and fire. Without grazing, grass has the competitive edge over forbs. It grows faster and shades out our other natives. Cattle and bison preferentially eat grass over most forbs, so light to moderate grazing tips the competitive balance back in favor of flowering plants. Of course, you can over do it. Overstocked and overgrazed pastures can be moonscapes. One must be conscientious. 

And the Kerr ranch has been conscientious. They're following the basic range precept of "take half, leave half". It's working here. I took a series of pictures along the pulled electric fence line in their grazed remnant prairie, showing the impact of grazing on the grass-forb balance. Here are some images demonstrating the excellent job that the folks at the Kerr Center are doing with their native pasture:

Ungrazed above red line, grazed below
Note the rank grass above the grazed line. This is what we call "undergrazed". Coming from the east, it was a real cultural adjustment for me to recognize the place grazing has in maintaining healthy grasslands. Regional differences in accepted habitat management practices are something I butt heads with regularly when making management recommendations.

Ungrazed above red line, tilled and planted below
This line here is one of David's experiments. He wanted to try to re-introduce some plants that had dropped out of the native pasture during its years of neglect. He sowed partridge pea (pictured) and compass plant, among others. You can see the dense grass above the till line, and his planting below. The next two pictures are of the grazed portion of the pasture. You can see how the cattle ate around the forbs, focusing their attentions on their preferred grasses.

Grazed. Note that the cattle ate around the forbs.
Another shot of the grazed half
Grazed. Note the circled cow pie.
In case you are still incredulous: here's a cow patty in the grazed sector, right at the base of a nice clump of blazing star. 

More pictures of Kerr Ranch after the jump. 

Native fragrant water lily growing in a back channel
Bees were loving this unID'd pink flower. It was growing intermixed with blue waterleaf.
This back channel was practically buzzing with bug life


  1. In regard to Arkansas resembling Virginia: "The Blue and the Gray", a TV miniseries that depicted some famous Civil War battles fought in Virginia, was filmed entirely in Arkansas. I guess other folks have noticed the resemblance. :)

  2. I will always be incredulous, but I digress. :)

    Your pink flower is a species of Rhexia (meadow beauty).

    1. Thanks James! Apparently members of this genus require buzz pollination, so no wonder this flower was super-attractive to bumble bees and other natives.