Sheep Mountain

June 26, 2011

I celebrated the Aestival solstice last Tuesday with a brief stop at the turnout where the road up Sheep Mountain in the Badlands National Park turns into a track for four-wheel drive vehicles only. We were in a mini-van and with a thunderstorm already visible across the prairie to the west: it seemed like the prudent thing to do. I spent the hours following the late sunset at a Red Roof Inn in Woodbury, MN after my flight to Lansing was canceled. The deluxe king room (one of only two left when I inquired at about 10:30 from the airport) was missing the in-room coffee pot that was supposed to be the chief feature warranting its deluxeness, not to mention an extra twenty-five bucks on the room rate, but that’s another story altogether.

Outside the park I noted that South Dakota ranchers seem unimpressed with the idea of rotational grazing, the key strategy for Holistic Range Management (HRM). Cattle were sparse on the prairie, reflecting the limited stocking rates of old-school range management. For all the young dudes out there, the stocking rate is the number of cattle (or other grazing species) that the grasses and browse can support. Stocking rates differ depending on soil condition and climatic conditions like rainfall. Methods for calculating the stocking rate are the subject of dissertations in range management, as well as tightly held ranching secrets. The old-school calculates the appropriate number of animals, then lets them stay on the range continuously, browsing on whatever grasses suit their fancy. My guess is that there might have been one or two cows grazing continuously per hundred acres on the mixed grass prairie I was looking at last week.

Legend has it that HRM was based on suppositions of what American prairies would have been like in the days of the buffalo. Herds of perhaps half a million North American bison roamed the nation’s midsection, and due to their sheer numbers, all manner of grasses and plants were eaten down to the nub as the herd passed through. No opportunity for seeking out that especially tender and tasty shoot for these big boys. The buffalo ate everything and then moved on. But after they were gone, the prairie ecosystem had a long recovery period—perhaps as much as several years—during which the flora had only to contend with prairie dogs.

Rotational grazing is intended to simulate the effect of the buffalo. Large numbers of cattle are confined in fenced pastures where they are forced to eat it all down to the nub, then moved to a new pasture, leaving the old one with ample time to recover. Supposedly, this creates a better mix of grasses and discourages invasive species. 20 years ago, there was a heated controversy as to whether this worked. I remember meeting W.R. Teague who was doing research on rotational grazing at Texas A&M, and I wrote about Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean who was advocating the approach in my 1995 book The Spirit of the Soil. A new film by Irene Klavier, also a philosopher, follows three ranchers who are committed to HRM. It’s called The New Frontier: Sustainable Ranching in the American West. Irene says that one goal was to show people how at least some have become committed to the values of sustainability. She also says that Teague continues to advocate the approach.

Ranchers around the badlands are apparently having none of it. Ironically neither are the tribes who keep herds of real-live North American bison on the South Dakota range. I learned from a Lakota woman that they don’t like the idea of managing the buffalo as closely as the rotational approach requires. It contradicts the whole spirit of their cultural relation to the buffalo to herd hem from pasture to paddock on a managed basis. Buffalo should be wild and free. So the buffalo are in effect managed like an old-school cattle herd with continuous grazing and close attention to stocking rates. It’s a true philosophical quandary.

So. Hey dudes! Carry the news. But maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A 2008 paper (on which Teague is an author) states “Continued advocacy for rotational grazing as a superior strategy of grazing on rangelands is founded on perception and anecdotal interpretations, rather than an objective assessment of the vast experimental evidence.” The authors note that “a well-managed rotational system will very likely achieve desired production goals more effectively than poorly managed continuous grazing.” But they go on to state that the reverse is also true.

So apparently the great grazing debate rages on. For now I’d say not to take your ranching advice from philosophers, even if they are on a Aestival solstice high.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Professorship in Agricultural Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University.

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