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Patch burn grazing an important tool in Glacial Ridge prairie maintenance

By Carol Stender
cstender@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 07/08/2013 2:41 PM

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FERTILE, Minn. — Don Baloun calls patch burn grazing at the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge near Fertile a "win-win" for everyone.

"It's a win for the rancher grazing his cattle on the prairie grasses and a win for the agencies involved as they manage the prairie," said the Minnesota NRCS state conservationist.

A quarter of the 2,100 acres designated for grazing in the refuge is burned four times annually. Cattle later move into the area to graze. The practice mimics the prairie fires followed by grazing buffalo that once occurred , said Dave Bennett of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who serves as the refuge's manager. The fenced-in grazed area is part of the 24,000 acres that makes up the refuge.

Baloun, Bonnet and Brian Winter, program director for the Nature Conservancy; NRCS biologist Greg Bengtson; and NRCS area grazing specialist Mark Hayek recently toured the area.

Wildlife habitat has improved with more native flowers, grasses prairie chickens, Sandhill cranes and other wildlife. The burning followed by cattle controls the heavy thatch and litter. The wildlife and the cattle co-habitate the area without problems.

The Crookston Cattle Company once grazed cattle on the land, said Winter.

"If it was still grazed today, we wouldn't be here and there wouldn't be a refuge," Bennett said.

The land was purchased by Tilden Farms in the 1970s with much of the land put into crop production. The land wasn't conducive to farming. When it came up for sale, the three agencies worked together to buy and restore the land with the Nature Conservancy leading the purchase. Thirty non-government agencies helped with the project, they said.

The agencies used the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program to re-establish the wetlands. They combined other prairies in the area for grass and flower seed and seeded the refuge. About 20 miles of judicial ditches were closed as part of the plan to restore 400 wetlands.

The restoration project has become one more area along the Red River that has holding capacity to contain some of the spring melt in an effort to control flooding.

When they looked at managing the land, agency leaders considered patch burn grazing. Before they moved forward, the agencies took a local cattle producer to the refuge. They talked about a cattleman's needs for a herd grazing on the land and the agencies noted what they needed to maintain the prairie land.

They called a meeting of cattle producers to discuss the project and more than a dozen attended. The agencies were looking for a local cattle producer who lived near the refuge and could be there quickly if needed.

Creep feeding wouldn't be allowed and insecticide use would be limited.

"We knew from our work with landowners in the past the positive results of grazing from the wildlife, habitat and production side," Hayek said. "If we can't take care of the wildlife and habitat side, that trumps everything."

The cattle producers were interested and one, who lived near the refuge had done some homework on his own as he researched natural pest controls. He worked with the agencies to bring his cattle to the refuge. The first year, the parties agreed the cattleman could have 200 cow/calf pairs on the refuge from May 15 to Sept 15. After they evaluated the pasture when the cattle were moved in the fall, it was determined 150 cow/calf pairs might be a better fit.

When the cattle arrive, they are placed in a quarantine area. It's a fenced in pasture next to a gravel pit. The cow/calf pairs graze there for a few days so their bodies can eliminate grass or weed seeds. The animals are then moved to the pasture. This year, due to cool weather that delayed plant growth, the cattle got a later start on the refuge land.