By Dan Macon
Targeted grazing using sheep, goats, or cattle (or combinations of two or more species) can be an effective way to manage vegetation for a variety of goals. Given the ever-present threat of wildfire in the summer and fall months in the Sierra foothills, many landowners and land managers are considering hiring targeted grazing contractors to help manage wildfire fuel loads.
Using ruminants to manage fuel loads through targeted grazing offers a number of important advantages:
- Targeted grazing can be a cost-effective alternative for reducing fine and ladder fuels over large and rugged landscapes that may be inaccessible for equipment or hand crews.
- Targeted grazing is especially effective at maintaining fuel reduction treatments like shaded fuel breaks.
- Unlike many treatment methods, targeted grazing actually removes fuel from the landscape - the wildfire fuels are removed by the grazing/browsing livestock.
- Targeted grazing contractors can often provide all necessary infrastructure (fencing, livestock water, predator protection, etc.).
By managing the type and number of animals, the duration of grazing, the season and frequency of grazing, and the spatial distribution of livestock, targeted grazing can help landowners and managers achieve a variety of land management goals.
Where is Targeted Grazing Effective?
Well-managed targeted grazing can be used to address site-specific landscape goals. For example, targeted grazing can impact specific invasive weeds (like yellow starthistle, medusahead or Himalayan blackberries). By controlling competing vegetation at crtical times, targeted grazing can enhance habitat restoration efforts. Finally, targeted grazing can reduce fine fuels and ladder fuels to reduce wildfire danger in a variety of environments.
Typically, targeted grazing is a cost-effective vegetation management alternative where other options are ineffective. Specifically, targeted grazing can be more cost effective on landscapes that are too steep, rocky or remote for conventional vegetation management (like mowing or chemical treatment), or in the urban-wildland interface where burning is not an option.
Managing Animal Impacts
Grazing livestock have three basic impacts on the landscape. They consume vegetation through grazing, they trample vegetation (which can facilitate the breakdown of plant carbon in the soil and modify wildfire fuel profiles), and they transfer nutrients through defecation and urination. Targeted grazing uses all three impacts to accomplish specific vegetation management goals.
Targeted grazing contractors also have a solid understanding of the growth characteristics and vulnerabilities of specific target vegetation. For example, grazing yellow starthistle with sheep or goats during the bolt stage (April to June, usually), can dramatically reduce seed production. Browsing Himalayan blackberries in the fall as the plants are going dormant can stress root systems at a key period.
Timing of targeted grazing for fuel reduction is also important. To reduce the potential for re-growth, fuel reduction grazing should be done after the last spring rain. Since the nutritional quality of annual grasslands typically declines rapidly at this time of year, targeted grazers may need to provide supplemental nutrition to ensure appropriate impact to targeted vegetation. In some instances, cattle may be the most appropriate species for particular projects.
Why Pay Someone to Graze? Isn't Free Grass Enough?!
Targeted grazing is a very different business model than simply grazing for livestock production. Effective targeted grazing focuses on impacting target vegetation at exactly the right time for specific landscape or vegetation goals. Traditional livestock production, on the other hand, focuses on putting weight on animals or increasing reproductive success. Traditional livestock operations generate income from the sale of animals and animal products; these operations focus on body condition and the nutritional status of the animals at specific production stages. Targeted grazers generate income from vegetation management services; these operations may accept a drop in body condition or reproductive success to achieve desired impacts to low quality forage as long as this service is paid for.
Unlike equipment, which can be parked when not in use, livestock must be fed before they arrive on your property and after they leave. Part of the service that targeted grazing companies provide is the logistical planning necessary to keep their livestock "employed" throughout the grazing season.
Goals are Important!
Realistic landowner and land manager goals are important for successful targeted grazing applications. Targeted grazing is often a long-term approach that addresses prior problems. For example, invasive weeds may be symptomatic of a long-term lack of management. A single targeted grazing project is unlikely to address these long-term symptoms; a multi-year approach will likely be necessary to improve ecological function and reduce the weed seedbank. Recognizing this, many targeted grazing contractors will reduce their annual per acre charges in exchange for multi-year contracts.
Expectations are also important. Landowners who expect a uniform appearance to land treated with grazing (as if the land had been mowed) will likely be disappointed; grazing often leaves a patchy appearance on the landscape. Furthermore, grazing does not often provide the immediate visual effects of chemical treatment, mastication, or mowing. Vegetation treated with herbicide, for example, often shows immediate impact; grazing is a long-term management technique.
Finally, timing is critical. If targeted grazing occurs too early in the season, soil moisture may be sufficient for the targeted vegetation to re-grow. On the other hand, the palatability of annual grasses and weed species may decline as these plants mature. Contractors often provide supplemental nutrition and other management techniques to impact this lower quality forage at the optimal time.
What to look for in a Targeted Grazing Contractor
Targeted grazing companies are service providers. Consequently, experience, responsiveness, and attention to detail are critical. Consumers should look for companies with experience in grazing projects in similar environments and situations. Ask potential contractors about their experience level – and ask for references.
Targeted grazing may not be the least costly vegetation management option (compared to mowing or herbicide treatment). As outlined above, targeted grazing is often the best alternative where other treatments aren't possible.
Most targeted grazing contractors will provide an estimate on a per acre basis, allowing consumers to compare targeted grazing to other vegetation management options. In addition, contractors will provide an estimate of the project start date and duration. These estimates can be somewhat uncertain depending on year-to-year changes in vegetation quantity.There are a variety of factors that impact the cost of a particular targeted grazing project, including:
- Relative ease (or difficulty) of setting up infrastructure, including loading and unloading facilities. Projects in steep or difficult-to-access terrain require more labor (and, therefore, are typically more costly).
- Access to livestock water. Easily accessible water can make the project less costly; projects without access to water may require the contractor to haul water to the livestock.
- Other risks, like vandalism, toxic plants, or proximity to high-value landscaping may increase the cost.
- Multi-year contracts are typically cheaper on a per acre basis. Livestock and targeted grazing staff become more accustomed to a particular property (and therefore more efficient) if the contract is for multiple years.
- Headache factors – like free-roaming pet dogs or neighbors who object to livestock or livestock guardian dogs – can increase the cost of a project.
Landowners and managers should contact targeted grazing contractors well in advance of the desired project start date. Targeted grazing contractors are busiest during the spring and early summer months; scheduling these jobs typically occurs in during the prior fall and winter.