The muted crack of a twig woke me from a full body fatigue sleep. Holding my breath, I strained my ears for a clue as to who was stalking in the night. There it was again, this time with breathing. Then, the rhythmic ripping of green pinegrass as whoever it was severed it from roots. I breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t a bear. Omnivore bears do eat grass, but usually not with the herbivore’s practiced timing. I peered in the darkness in the trees around me, still in bedroll, and saw nothing in the milky-way starlight that filtered down through the dense canopy of Douglas-fir trees around camp. It must be a deer or an elk. I rolled over and dozed.
Heavy breathing woke me again. Even with my eyes closed, I could smell the sweet decaying fragrance and feel the closeness of animal carnivore face inches from mine. “Bear” flashed through my mind. I slowly opened my eyes, canine face licked mine. It was the border collie, Gypsy-Dave on his night rounds. “Just checking on you, boss.” He turned away, dug a hole in the pine duff, and re-collapsed.
I never sleep soundly on the range, especially on the first night in a new camp. Sleeping intentionally in the open, I can hear, sometimes see, and more often feel what walks around me. I like to face that which stalks through camp in the night, and keep a shotgun close at hand. You never know when some marauding troublemaking bear needs a warning blast of Remington Number 6 bird shot across the bow, rattling through the trees above them. Stay out of my larder, I’m saying. The blast is quite effective and I don’t have to hit him; the noise will usually scare them off.
I could just make out the prostrate forms of the crew scattered out across the ground barely visible in the patchwork patterned starlight. Josh and Anthony went down in the pine duff in their respective bedrolls much as Gypsy-Dave did. The last I saw of the cowboys was in the faint Coleman lantern light at around 1 this morning, as they silently circled a piece of ground like a dog does before lying down. They were shuffling in a sort of stupor, looking for a chunk of the forest floor free of pieces of wood where they could pile up for the night. They were bone tired from horseback all day and had passed the point where they could talk coherently.
My daughters had turned up their noses at sleeping on the ground and put dibs on the tents. Melanie, Linnaea and Madelyn were fairly dead to the world. They sleep lightly when they are in charge of the herd, but they knew I would be night-watching, so they could sleep soundly. It’s the least a dad can do.
It was the camp switch and move day, a day that occurs around every two weeks where the beeves are brought to a new, higher and better place. There’s a little urgency now in these moves and I can’t put them off for a few days like I can earlier in the year. The heat of summer has set in on the low and medium elevation ranges, and the grass is curing out fast, losing nutrition by the day through oxidation in the dry heat and powerful UV rays of the sun at 6000 feet elevation. What that means is that we have to keep the beeves moving to higher and cooler elevations where the green and growing lasts longer, despite the heat of summer.
We were upward bound for Iron Mountain Camp, the sixth camp this summer. The beeves were now nearly 45 trail miles from ranch headquarters, and had gained about 2500 feet in elevation. Josh and Anthony would guide them to their new camp; the girls and I would break down and gather up Camp 5 and trail the relief horses up to Iron Mountain camp. We planned to meet Josh and Anthony and the cattle up there at 9 PM, after the beeves had gained a full belly of rich green range grasses on their way to the new camp.
It was when we gathered up the range horses that I noticed something.
We rarely get to see how the vegetation responds to our grazing in years subsequent. Because we mimic the movement and habit of buffalo with our beeves, we rarely visit an area again in a following year, or even for a number of years. Most of this is intentional, but part of it is simply the fact that 70 square miles is big country, and we have elbow room.
Big Hat Camp was an exception. On one of my 100 mile weekly recon missions aboard old yellow dirt bike, I found that the country around Big Hat was abloom with wild grasses and flowers. It looked awesome, in spite of us grazing there last year. This was a legendary moisture year, with abundant winter snowfall and the grass looked better than I had ever seen it.
So we decided to use Big Hat Camp again this year, and revisit some of last year’s grazing ground. Even some of the steers relished the opportunity to move back to familiar territory. Some of them had been there last year as barely weaned calves, and remembered each detail, from where the best grass was to how to get to camp (which I still find astonishing, and probably is worth another story some day). They would help us bring the beeves to water and new grass every day. They were graduates from last year’s range school, and those steers are akin to Teaching Assistants for the rest of the herd for whom this country was completely new.
But it was capturing and moving those horses for the camp move from their temporary electric wire pasture that presented some interesting new information.
It started two weeks ago, near midnight, and I was stringing wire with Clint after we enjoyed a nice camp meal he and Leslie cooked up: stir fried kale with flatiron steak and fresh sliced tomatoes. We washed it all down with a glass of pinot noir and some great conversation. Leslie had even decorated a little dining area under an adjacent fir tree with LED patio lights. We picked up our camp chairs and ate there. Clint and Leslie had figured out what most of us riders up here already had: if you can bring a few creature comforts to camp to take your mind off your aching and horseback trail weary body, it sure makes those days go by easier.
We finished up the simple but delicious dinner and got back to work on a horse pasture fence we needed to put in. We create temporary small pastures in camp for both the horses and the night paddock for the beeves with electric fence, powered by a solar charger. Simple, relatively fast, and effective, but constructed more easily with at least some light than in the dark. We should have wrapped up our dinner a little earlier.
We lit headlamps and off we went.
We were placing the relief horses on the same general location as last year; it was a steep mountainside with abundant wild bunchgrasses filling the voids between sagebrush, very similar, I think, to the native ranges of horse–the dry steppes of Central and West Asia. As I placed fiberglass and non-conductive posts to mark the perimeter of pasture, Clint followed me stringing the conductive cord. I tried to roughly match where we put them last year because it was a known quantity in the darkness. I didn’t have to check out what the pasture encompassed because I knew it was free of troublesome boulders or foxholes which are hard on horses who grazed much of the night.
I yelled back to Clint: “Check out this grass, Clint.” I pointed my LED headlamp across it. “It looks like a hayfield up here!”
That was two weeks ago. I returned to the same spot yesterday, now in broad daylight, and rolled up the fence after the girls captured the relief horses and saddled them near the now packed up camp, ready to move to Iron Mountain.
As I rolled up my hotwire, I could clearly see by landmarks and still degrading horse manure where my pasture fence was last year, and where I missed it in the darkness. There were often 25 foot gaps between the perimeter of what we grazed last year, a larger area, and what we grazed down over the last 2 weeks. That difference of pasture boundary set up for me an experiment whose results would become obvious in the light of day compete with a control and test, right next to each other on identical soils and vegetation types.
What I saw surprised me, and stopped me in my tracks. And you, dear reader, likely think I had stumbled across a growling grizzly bear with cubs or something equally as exciting. Not so. But to a humble grazer of grass and by definition the observer of the not so obvious, my attention was so captivated that I dropped the fiberglass posts I had in hand to look more closely at the grass growing underfoot: there were three clearly distinct bands in front of me. The first was where I was standing. Grass was grazed down to close to the ground by the horses in the pen that had confined them for the past 2 weeks. They had left all else; forbs (broadleaved non-woody flowering plants) and sagebrush and other woody shrubs. No surprise here.
The second band was where the horses grazed last year, but not this year. It looked like the hayfield I spotlighted and mentioned to Clint that night two weeks ago. Verdant grass carpeted ground between sagebrush, and was what I thought the product of a great moisture year.
The third band was the real surprise, and completely closed shut down the moisture notion. It was the area outside of last year’s fence. Plants were healthy looking, and I would say it was a healthy and functional snapshot of Idaho’s central high mountain wild range. But the production was only half of the green belt in the middle that was grazed last year.
The immediate take home was that it wasn’t moisture causing the upswell in production and green plant density in the middle band, because the control, or ungrazed for both years area was half the biomass produced in the green band. Same soil, and direction of slope. Identical conditions. My second was that it wasn’t just horse manure or urine that was making the difference. That would have made expression spotty, and in fact, the manure was still there, in the last stages of breakdown, and there was no plant expression change in those areas.
It wasn’t urine deposits either. I see these in my irrigated pastures on the home ranch- circles of darker green where some horse or cow deposited a nice stream of animal-made nitrogen. They’re spotty, and indeed there was some spottiness to the grass stand suggesting urine circles, but all of the area was more productive and green than the adjacent non-grazed area.
I looked at the pen where we had just taken the horses out from. The grasses were grazed to the ground (as horses do), and although there were hoof prints, there really wasn’t any churned up soil of disturbance that would explain the difference. I looked some more, and then took some pictures.
We’re still learning about grazing animal/ plant interactions, and when I say “we” I mean the collective version that includes researchers and practitioners like me. There are animal effects that we don’t understand. There are obvious effects like manure and urine, and trampling and hoof action, and removal of part of the plant (grazing). But I’ve seen this before where none of those obvious effects seem to explain what we observe.
I think about these things when grazing our beeves on these wild ranges which were grazed pre-settlement by large herbivores like the bison. Their pattern of grazing was infrequent visitations but often very heavy use, completely different from the burden of continuous grazing by domestic livestock that mankind has imposed on the wild range landscape worldwide. That continuous grazing has been the undoing of many healthy rangeland ecosystems, and even the cause of desertification in Africa.
Native bison would only come by every several years or so, and that is what we are trying to replicate with our approach to grazing our 70 square miles of Idaho semi-wilderness rangelands. It’s the conditions under which range ecosystems were founded. The plants are designed for that type of grazing, and the green pulse I witnessed is indicative of the response that intermittent grazing can produce, even if we do not understand the mechanism.
And, if you’re like me, restoration of ancient rhythms in wild landscapes while harvesting that wild, nutrient dense protein is intriguing not only because it makes wrongs right, but it makes our wild food even better. Here’s a case in point: We’ve been harvesting beef off the pristine range this summer. The rind fat on most of those NY strips are telltale of wild grasses and forbs: they are more orange than ever before, telling the secret of beta carotene and polyphenols present in the diverse native plants they eat.
And what is good for them is good for us. Thanks for joining us in an ever intriguing search for wellness in wild landscapes and wild food for the human genome.