|Targeted Grazing East of the Mississippi is a Different World
By BECKY TALLEY
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor
(December 1, 2008) Leafy spurge may be the scourge of the West, but on the Eastern side of the United States, land owners are seeing their pastures and healthy vegetation overtaken by an equally insidious group of non-native plant species. What could be called the plague of the Southeast, Kudzu, is a huge problem for landowners, and other species of plants such as multiflora rose, ironweed, briars and lambsquarter are wrecking havoc on desirable plants and productive pastures in the East.
While the West has large amounts of public lands where grazing is being used for invasive plant species’ control, the land in the East is mostly privately owned, creating a challenge to get landowners to accept targeted grazing as a land-management strategy.
It was with this in mind, that the American Sheep Industry Association hosted the third conference in its series “Targeted Grazing: Grazing with a Goal,” in Pennsylvania Furnace, Pa., in September. The workshop brought grazing educators, livestock producers, federal and state land managers and contract grazers together for a two-day information session on targeted grazing.
“It’s not just people in agriculture, it’s everybody starting to realize the damage that these exotic species can do. This is really a worldwide thing that is going on,” said speaker John Walker, Ph.D., Texas A&M University.
During the workshop, attendees were given a chance to see real examples of the benefits of targeted grazing, talk to contract grazers and agency representatives that use and encourage the use of small ruminants in targeted grazing, which are very suited to the eastern landscapes.
In fact, according to Walker, when looking at the trends of cattle, sheep and weeds in the western United States, it is clear that sheep have long been a natural weed-control agent. As cattle grazing became more predominant, sheep grazing dwindled and weeds grew out of control.
“Over time we started mostly cattle grazing and very little sheep grazing. We then had an explosion of weeds,” he says.
Though the landscape is different, the eastern states have had much the same experience.
“125 years ago Ohio had 7 million sheep, and we wouldn’t have had this discussion,” Bob Hendershot, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) state grassland conservationist in Ohio, says of the invasive weed problems presented at the workshop. “When we had enough animals to do the job, we wouldn’t have had much of a job.”
Targeted Grazing in the Eastern United States
According to attendees at the conference, targeted grazing on the eastern side of the United States takes on a different look than in the West. A large reason is because of the lesser amount of public land; therefore, there are not as many government-mandated and supported projects to study the use of targeted grazing in the eastern landscapes.
“There’s been a lot more work done on the western side than on the eastern side of the U.S.,” said Hendershot. “There’s a need for research. It’s a big cry in the Northeast.”
According to Hendershot, grazing projects in Ohio run a gamut from grazing Conservation Reserve Program lands for invasive plant species control to grazing in areas to control native plants that are used for wildlife habitat.
One big use of targeted grazing is to improve pasture quality for multipl-species grazing, most commonly for the dairy industry. Sheep and goats can be brought into a dairy operation to clear weeds, leaving more forage for the cattle.
“There is an economic advantage to these things, so there is more willingness to bring small ruminants on the place,” he related.
Hendershot said that both goats and sheep have been used successfully on operations, and are especially beneficial in organic dairy situations where herbicides are restricted.
“They do an excellent job of maintaining weeds out of pasture fields,” he said.
The relationship between sheep and cattle in this situation can be very symbiotic. Cattle can work to help control sheep and goat parasites, graze taller forages and are even a predator deterrent, while sheep or goats eat plants and shrubs that cattle will refuse, clearing a way for their preferred forages, and are perfect for preparing a weanling pasture because of their grazing habits.
“When they work together, they have a beautiful thing,” he said.
Of course, there are considerations before using animals in this type of targeted grazing program. Fencing is an issue, as cattle fencing will not hold sheep or goats, facility availability, labor and predators can pose a challenge. In addition, getting people to accept sheep and goats as a grazing tool has been a hurdle.
However, through cost-share grants provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS, interested individuals are encouraged to use small ruminants in their grazing schemes.
One such project that just finished its first grazing season in West Virginia was implemented to encourage the use of small ruminants as biological control agents to manage invasive plants in pastures with the expectations of fetching additional farm income while maintaining sustainability.
According to project coordinator, Sigrid Teets, 18 cooperators were determined to be eligible to participate in the project. All the materials necessary to contain the animals and to meet the cost-share part of the project were purchased and delivered to each cooperator, which included temporary electric fencing, ground rods and an electric charger.
In order to help the cooperators with the transition to grazing sheep and goats, a two-day workshop for the cooperators as well as any other stakeholder interested in learning more about this practice was held. Evaluations carried out after the event indicated a high level of knowledge gain for those who received training. A great degree of cooperation between different entities such as the state extension service, the college of agriculture and NRCS has led to a smooth and flawless flow of information to the cooperators in the project.
It is projects like these that conference attendees were hoping to see more of in order to increase the use of sheep and goats for targeted grazing, with the end result being usable data on invasive plant control and an increased social acceptance of the practice.
“It’s a different world (in the East). It’s a different perspective,” said Jason Teets, conference attendee. “We have mostly private lands, so we need to find ways to reach the private landowners.”