Grazing Woodlands, Ecological Management, and Climate Change


I shared my thoughts on this article to the Practical Farmers of Iowa e-mail listserv as “Response to Brasher USDA Climate Bill Article”.  The question was–could new forest land could be grazed with cattle? What follows was my response:

This article seems to make people scared. It’s not going to be an overnight change (like $4.00/gal gas) But over generations, a gradual phasing in of new voices, new crops, new markets. Did soybeans entering Iowa way back when make anybody else’s grandparents nervous? Do some vegetable growers in Iowa today make anyone nervous? Organic? Change is scary.


Cattle in the Woods

Grazing in savannas (open woodlands with a prairie forage understory) can be a potentially viable grazing option. It is my understanding that soil compaction is not as big of a problem with a prairie sod as it is in the forest soil. Anyone disagree? Management is the key here! Skilled graziers are needed. Get the cattle in, get them out, watch the stock density, monitor, and re-evaluate.

Grazing in forests are not likely to have positive synergies as the cattle would likely do many of the bad things that one listserv commenter mentioned. I don’t know about the gooseberry comment though, Gooseberry (Ribes gossularia) is a very important fruit bearing woodland understory shrub for a wide spectrum of wildlife (black bears to songbirds) If gooseberries increased I don’t know if that would be all that bad, probably the biggest problems with grazing in woodlands is the soil compaction especially in the root zone below the tree canopy. Other threats are invasive non-native woodland invaders like Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and Tartarian Honeysuckle (Lonicera tartica) not to mention the dreaded Garlic Mustard.

If you are talking about establishing a tree plantation and then grazing a forage understory that is possible. Many Orchardists and Nut Growers are using this system with much success.


My Two Cents

Iowa needs “ecosystem management”, more prairies, wetlands, and high quality woodlands (high native species biodiversity, management of invasive species) to achieve long term stability. Produce a crop and harvest sustainably from the natural systems that exist.

We can build off the management strategies of the Nature Conservancy and lessons from the Broken Kettle Grasslands in NW Iowa: using grazing and fire to improve biodiversity on the native prairie, store a heck of a lot of carbon and incidentally fatten a good amount of beef cattle.

Prairie would store much more biomass below ground (up to 75%) than trees (25-50%).

I would be more supportive of paying farmers to reconstruct high diversity, native prairie as a carbon crop where possible and restore the woodlands that we have lost in Iowa since European Settlement. It takes agricultural skills to bring back that which agriculture removed.

Diverse prairie would be a forage crop that would have stable success no matter what the weather does. Prairie diversity is the key to growing a sustainable agriculture thru whatever climate changes are destined to come. Woodland management that produces high value black walnut and oak timber is a profitable crop to those who can wait. Even Wetlands can be a place to grow something new from sales of hunting leases for waterfowl or producing a rice crop.

We don’t need to put all of Iowa back to native prairies, forests and wetlands. We still need annual crops, we still need highly productive finishing pastures. Allow people to choose to buy food produced in different ways.
Probably the most important thing we need in Iowa is people on the land because without that, you can’t grow anything – prairie carbon or feed grain. Below is an example of the kind of new job opportunities that would exist with a carbon market for Iowa:
Timber Harvesters
Mill operators
Tourism – potentially – Hunting. B&B’s.
Land Managers
Prairie Bulk Seed producers
Tree Nursery producers
Tree Planting Crews
Burn Crews
Associated Manufacturing
Loan Officers
We would also be helping to avert a global environmental threat to the long-term productivity of agriculture – anthropogenic climate change.
To paraphrase Joel Salatin from Food Inc. – “Now Thats a Noble Goal!”
Best Wishes,