The stately elk were also carrying on an animated conversation in the bottoms, but Jackie wouldn’t chase them. She leaves them alone. A bull was bugling his lonesome and ethereal call that echoed across the bottoms; I could clearly pick out the meow-like cow elk talk carry in the thick air across the meadows around him. I would need to do elk patrol tomorrow. We try to conduct elk patrol every day at this time of year. It’s where we walk, ride or drive our perimeter fences along the river bottoms, repairing down wires and checking for elk tracks along the way. It’s a kind of race with wildlife we have to compete in every year. Here’s how it works:
We leave all of the acreage on our ranch ungrazed in the deepest bottoms along the river; it’s a pretty wide swath because the wide swinging path of the river in its double-back meanders. It takes up a pretty big piece of country. We leave it for the wild animals we share our valley with; after all, they need habitat too. So the quiet bottoms in the willow breaks along the spring fed clear Pahsimeroi is the place where the wild creatures rule; a few hundred elk live down there year round, as well as thousands of white tailed-deer, waterfowl, otters, an occasional moose and beavers. It’s also home to migrating Chinook (king) salmon, steelhead trout, and a multitude of other aquatic life forms. It’s fenced to keep our cattle out.
The Pahsimeroi River bottoms that bisect Alderspring Ranch have excellent habitat for wildlife with mature cottonwood and aspen trees and good cover from thick willows. We don’t graze these areas.
Just over the fence, up on our pasture ground, we carefully manage our grass so that the best representation of all grass and forb species on the ranch is there all year. We do this by utilizing a protocol of controlled grazing, known as Management Intensive Grazing, aka MIG, a term coined by grazing guru and former University of Missouri researcher, Jim Gerrish. While Jim is a renowned grass and grazing expert who speaks and tours worldwide (he is currently in Mongolia), he is also now a neighbor, having settled in the Pahsimeroi Valley a few miles away from us a decade ago.
Following Jim’s MIG protocol means that we move our beeves to custom designed paddocks frequently. We always have a head down to the grass underfoot, and observe the beeves in their grazing choices. Choice is really the byword here; if we provide fresh grass breaks frequently with tons of food choices for our beeves, they can self-regulate their own wellness. They’ll select different things each day, based on flavor, which their bodies use to define just what nutrients they need. And the nutrients are all there on our chemical-free ground, with enough soil animals– both worm sized and microscopic–to convert soil mineral material into things the plants can use.
Adherence to MIG principles amounts to frequent cattle moves to new paddocks. In the summer it can be as often as once, or even twice a day. This ensures that we achieve pasture quality throughout the growing season, rather than only in the spring. It also means that we also have some of our best grass in the fall–it’s the culmination of a summer’s hard work in the careful husbandry of our grass.
The elk and deer, on the other hand, do little to maintain pasture quality in the river bottoms. That’s why they meander outward in the fall and try to capitalize on our nearby pastures–to capture quality that is long gone in their native habitats. And that is why we do elk patrol. They’ll steal in at night among our beeves and try to capture some of the results of our hard work, knocking down fences, and putting their dent in our grass reserves. So we’ll go out there to maintain our boundaries daily, and leave our scent down there along our travelways to deter their night-time stealth missions.
Yesterday, on elk patrol, I moved quietly among the beeves, and they surrounded me with a curious eye. They are always pretty full, and usually have the time margin to hang out with the boss. I found myself jealous of them as they crowded around me. They always seem to have nothing but time. They’re curious, likely hoping that I’ll give them some new and fresh grass, and looking at me like my Kelpie dog does when I’m cooking a steak. I checked them out to see if everyone is well, but half my eye-time is spent looking at the ground. It gets that way after doing this for as long as we have, because there are always stories in the grass and soil. Perhaps a track, or uneaten forb (why haven’t they eaten it?).
Or better yet, the shape of a steer’s manure pile. From that we can tell how much beeves are gaining on this particular grass sward. Speaking of manure, I see the malted milk ball shape of elk droppings on this pasture. They’ve been here.
The elk come here for the simple reason that our carefully managed grass is better than their own. It’s the best of fall grass, because we have paid attention to not only making the grass thrive, but also because we have taken care of all the pieces and parts: we fed our soil bacteria; we fed worms, we maximized water holding capacity; we’ve maximized the amount of ground cover, and we’ve maximized the surface area of plants to capture sunlight, to name a very few things we look at.
We call it husbandry. It’s when people who have a heart for the land, water, and animals begin to understand the ecological relationships, and by management in sync with nature can actually enhance the functionality of a natural system. Mind you, I don’t consider inputs as enhancements. Take for instance, a grass fed beef producer who fertilizes his ground with chemical fertilizers (they can and they do). Productivity appears to have been increased; cattle have more to eat; plant biomass increases. But is that the true story? Is this enhancement?
I think not. Millions, no billions of soil organisms have likely died via chemical poisoning. Their death likely provides a short time nitrogen pulse to the soil that is an apparent side benefit, feeding grass productivity. But after the short term burst of production, the soil needs more amendments, because there is no more living matrix to keep minerals accessible to plants.
The pasture owner then has a choice: succumb to the drug-pusher siren song of more chemicals than last year, or go cold turkey, and go back to rehab? I speak from experience. I was a short term chemical addict. There was a time 22 years ago, where we used nitrogen fertilizer like everyone did. When we went cold turkey and quit, it took nearly 10 years to get our soil life back—and match the production formerly propped up with fertilizer. Maybe there should be a support group: FA. Fertilizers anonymous: “Hi. My name is Glenn and I…am…chemically addicted to fertilizer.”
Now, we’ve been chemical free for over 20 years. After the hard knocks of learning the long way, under our new paradigm of stewardship soil life abounds. When it abounds, the grass reaching for the sun does too, and the critters follow suit as they walk over it while grazing the tall grass. In ecological husbandry, I think we actually become part of nature, and our artisanal tinkering can make our pastures better than what nature can do on her own. If you think I’m wrong, I have about 400-500 eyewitness neighbors who would likely agree. They are the wild elk and deer, who stealth across our borders at night to partake of the best of Alderspring.
Don’t worry. I’ll continue elk patrol—the girls and I, and we’ll try to save some of that fall grass for our beeves, so you can enjoy the best of Alderspring too.
Glenn, Caryl, and Girls at Alderspring.