Pasture Management

Dec 6, 2013

American rangeland and pasture management

It is a pleasure to be back at WLJ writing about one of my favorite subjects: American rangeland and pasture management. To be sure, this massive land mass is one of Americans’ most prestigious resources. There are several reasons for this statement. First off, pasturelands account for 25 percent of the U.S. landmass. Pasturelands do not require a huge input from petroleum energy, sometimes none at all, yielding food production at low cost.

Pasturelands provide us the means of turning a meager grass plant into lifesaving protein via the magic of the ruminant stomach. Best yet, these wide open spaces give us that great feeling of an open savanna yielding fresh air, peace and quiet, while providing a living for families, producing healthy food and room for wildlife to roam around in—just the opposite of a crowded busy city.

Every day I get to look up from my computer screen and watch cows, sheep and deer with their heads down munching away on my awesome view of native pasturelands. Above these pristine pastures is the majestic view of the Beartooth Absarokee Mountains. Lucky me.

With that said, I want to bring to you a series of management articles that make the care and management of American pasturelands more enjoyable, productive, profitable, and regenerative—just the opposite of conservation, which means to conserve, protect and save. As a past client of mine once told me, his goal was to leave his Montana rangelands in better condition than when he found them, and we did.

I now view the care of pastures as one great big garden, full of native and tame (introduced) plants. You see, in my retirement, I am testing and discovering new ways to feed the world. I now know that creating healthy soils equal healthy plants equal healthy people. Discovering nifty new ways to work less and grow healthier food is a worthy goal of mine.

So true in today’s pastures: if you can change the soils and let them become full of life, with something called sheet composting, using nature’s natural processes that are older than the hills around us, we now hold the power to improve your land. The one-liner that puts these processes into a nutshell is: if you don’t feed the soils, they won’t feed you.

Just walk around on your pastures. Are they soft soils? Are they full of organic matter? Do they hold moisture when it’s dry out? If not, ask yourself, “why not?” This is where all the “yah, buts” pop up.

Some people say, “Yah, but…we live in a desert. The wind blows our soils away. It’s too hot out. Our soils are too sandy or we have gumbo clay soils. I don’t like to build all those management fences. Our pastures are too big” or, “We don’t have enough land. It never rains enough,” or, “We have too much water. The weather has changed…” All these statements can be true. However, don’t you let them stop you from making changes. This is called the “blame game.” That is a “be lame” game that gets you nowhere.

Let us study some new ways to feed the world through sound pasture management methods. After all, is not that the definition of agriculture, providing good food for people? I am continuing to learn many new ways to grow soils on today’s farms and ranches, instead of going to the store and buying what is missing.

I still remember my old college professor Dr. Don Ryerson’s definition of the range position: get your nose on the ground with your butt in the air. From this position, you can see what is really going on. I have moved away from rangeland trend and condition, listing all the native plants still growing in a pasture. I now concentrate more on determining how healthy the soils and plants are.

An example of this from a rancher’s standpoint: I visited a documented pristine range condition site that was located inside a fence around an old cemetery. Sure enough, blue bunch wheatgrass was growing extensively all throughout the sagebrush habitat type. Based upon plant species present, this would put the condition of this rangeland site into the excellent category. All the right plant species were present.

However, a grazing animal had not disturbed this area inside the cemetery in perhaps 100 years. Upon closer examination, these native grass plants were puny in size with lots of dead forage standing upright like stiff toothpicks in the air; the soils were bare between the plants. It was a great example of something I now call, “land idleitis.” The soils and plants were as unhealthy as they could be. No disturbance present is the core cause of these unhealthy plants, or simply put, overrest was occurring, which is just the opposite of over-grazing. Both over-rest and overgrazing can cause a reduction in forage production. “Idleitis” also happens in people.

Just lie in a hospital bed for a month or become an extreme workaholic and you will become puny like the plants.

The take-home biological principle (nature’s law) that applies here is: Healthy pasturelands require periodic disturbance and adequate rest for full recovery. We all need to look much closer into the land, especially the soils, and not across the land to determine where to make changes. If you are making a living from the land, or I should say, making a living from the soils, this is where to focus first. Change your management of the animals to change the soils to become healthier and you change your life. — Wayne Burleson

Wayne Burleson is a semiretired Land Management Consultant and a passionate food gardener, working out of Absarokee, Montana. You can visit with him at rutbuster@