A Rangeland Stock Handling Concept: Inherding on the Hat Creek Grazing Allotment, Ellis Idaho
Ranchers using public lands range for grazing of livestock as permittees have experienced rapid changes in requirements and issues over the past 20 years. Concerns about riparian area habitat, water quality, endangered fish, endangered animals, reintroduction of wolves, and increased conflicts with recreational users have required operators to make substantial changes in grazing management and has even closed some areas for grazing. For many operators, these changes are expensive, and sometimes cannot be implemented in a manner that satisfies grazing standards and guidelines, such as stubble height of residual forage after grazing and bank trampling and alteration along streams.
Owners of privately held rangelands have also experienced new challenges. Endangered species listings affect private landowners as well and increasing regulation of water quality and other environmental parameters have increased the cost of using private rangelands. In addition, public perception of these areas, although privately held, is increasingly viewing semi-wild areas as part of the public trust.
In the early 20th century, fences were few and the range was “open.” Cattle were herded to good grass. Since the inception of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, cattle ranchers throughout the West have abandoned intensive herding in exchange for the “turning out” concept. This practice involved simply opening the gate to the grazing allotment and letting the cows roam, unmanaged, for much, if not all, grazing season. For many years it was the only method employed throughout the West. More recently, livestock operators have moved to a “keeping out” management style, where more intensive effort is made to keep livestock out of sensitive habitats such as riparian areas primarily through constructing additional fencing, but also through occasional herding by ATVs or horses.
The difference between current management and that of the early 20th century is that modern cowboys are employed to keep the cattle “out” of areas of concern. In contrast early managers in a largely unfenced and wild range hired range riders to keep their cattle together or “in” a herd to protect them and target grazing activities that would maximize weight gains.
As land management has become more complicated the current approach seems to be less and less successful, and more and more expensive. This proposal is focused on reinventing the concept of the traditional range rider to better attain land health objectives as well as reduce livestock loss to predators, poisonous plants, theft, and poor feed.
The Elzingas believe this shift in management may be cost-effective, but will require a demonstration to convince operators of its efficacy. The concept is an extension of the management intensive grazing paradigm that has been adopted by innovative stockman to increase forage production, vegetative health, and animal performance on pastures. In this management strategy, electric and permanent fencing is used to control animal movements, moving them as much as every day. This proposal extends this concept, but utilizes herders on horseback to control animal movement rather than fencing. They have coined the term inherding to differentiate what is proposed from current herding approaches.
Alderspring Ranch is a certified organic grassfed beef operation that sells the full ranch production of 350-400 head direct to patrons both via the internet and through several natural food stores. The ranch is owned and managed by Glenn and Caryl Elzinga. The ranch operates on 650 acres of irrigated hay and pasture ground, 1,000 acres of private rangeland and 46,000 acres of public lands mountain rangeland. This is the Hat Creek Allotment, managed by both the BLM and the USFS. The entire allotment has been certified organic by the Elzingas in cooperation with the BLM and USFS, making the operation one of the largest certified organic ranches in the U.S. The Elzingas are the sole permittees on the allotment.
The paradigm shift from “out” to “in” management is timely for Alderspring Ranch due to the convergence of multiple issues from both an ecological and cattle welfare standpoint. Sage grouse, bull trout and sensitive plant species all have important habitat on Hat Creek. Wolf predation is common. Much of the upper allotment was once vegetated by aspen stands, but natural succession has resulted in conversion to Douglas fir, with implications for watershed dynamics as well as wildlife habitat. Large areas of forest landscape are in a late seral progression, with little hope for return to an aspen/conifer mosaic unless management strategies such as prescribed fire are implemented.
In 2015, the Elzingas implemented a pilot project on the Hat Creek Allotment using intensive, 24 hour inherding. Livestock were bedded at night using electric fencing with herders remaining camped nearby. During the day, cattle were herded in a single group to upland areas that have historically received very little grazing use. Sensitive habitats were completely avoided.
The pilot was partially funded by the Central Idaho Rangelands Network (CIRN- see Roles and Partners below), of which the Elzingas are founding members. The pilot was deemed successful in meeting the objectives of minimizing cattle loss due to predation, poisonous plants, or illness (all 150 animals returned from the range) and avoiding sensitive habitat areas. Complete control of cattle movements and location of grazing was realized. The economics of the pilot project, while not conclusive, were suggestive that with economies of scale (larger herd) this approach could be cost effective. Educational outreach during 2015 included CIRN members, the sustainable agriculture community of Idaho, and agency personnel.
Funding is being sought through this grant for the following:
- Expand the number of organizations and entities invested and interested in the project (see potential partners below).
- Fund a project technician to implement additional financial and ecological monitoring
- Support extensive educational efforts.
List of Objectives
Successful implementation of this project requires coordination with a number of governmental, environmental, and agricultural entities. These entities may have direct interest, as in the BLM and USFS which are charged with implementing environmental standards for listed or sensitive species (sage grouse, bull trout, anadromous fish), or the Idaho Fish and Game (IDF&G) which must negotiate the conflict between ranchers and wolf predation. Other entities have indirect interest, such as environmental groups like Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) whose members have a concern for environmental quality and the impacts of livestock grazing in the west on public and private lands.
These entities are primarily interested in the environmental results of inherding. Success for these groups is measureable in the short term by demonstrating that control of livestock movement and grazing is, indeed, complete. They would be interested in short term implementation monitoring using methods such as utilization mapping and photo documentation. They would also be interested in establishing baseline monitoring to evaluate longer-term vegetation response.
In order for operators to wish to adopt this practice, it must be shown to be practicable and cost-effective. Therefore, successful implantation also requires the careful accounting of costs and the measurement of success on the ground through monitoring. The project must demonstrate that this approach is implementable both logistically and financially by livestock operators.
While much was learned in 2015, lack of resources limited documentation and monitoring of the efficacy of this approach. Funding through this SARE grant would be applied to that need.
The objectives and timeframes are as follows:
- February – April, 2016. Coordinate with potential stakeholders/interested parties. Identify resource objectives and monitoring approach cooperatively with stakeholders. Obtain agreement from agencies that monitoring methods and personnel are acceptable.
- Advertise summer positions.
- April 2016. Select team members. Purchase and prep field gear. Set up monitoring protocols for ecological and financial data collection.
- May 2016. Week long training for team members in stockmanship, horsemanship, and ecological objectives. Stockmanship sessions will be taught by Dave Ellis, a student of Bud Williams and a member of CIRN. Training will also include first aid and safety sessions.
- Implement herding project on the ground using 3 teams of 2-3 members each.
- Host 2 field tours.
- Collect logistical and financial data.
- Collect ecological monitoring data.
- Implement educational and social media plan (see list under Educational Outreach)
- September-December. Complete reports. Present to interested parties as well as those listed in the education plan below.
- March 2017. Submit semi-technical papers (Rangelands, Extension, Agency publications).
Relevance to Sustainable Agriculture
Livestock grazing of rangelands may be one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture. Rangelands are primarily vegetated by native long-lived species, and are adapted to grazing by native ungulates such as elk, deer, and bison. As long as grazing by domestic livestock does not adversely impact the plants and native habitats of rangelands, grazing can continue indefinitely. Current conditions on many rangelands are improving over the condition of these areas in the mid 1900s, but continued improvement and meeting objectives and perceptions of a more environmentally aware public will require greater management effort by ranchers.
Rangeland management has been largely an under-the-radar issue for the sustainable agriculture community, but bringing the management of the extensive areas of the west under the sustainable agriculture paradigm has the potential for large scale environmental benefits. In addition, western rangelands are uniquely suited to bring an organic grass fed product to the discerning consumer, a potential that has been largely overlooked.
The proposed project clearly supports environmental improvement and health. Targeted grazing by cattle can be implemented to avoid areas that should not be grazed because of other objectives (e.g. nesting cover for sage grouse) or should be grazed lightly or rested to achieve general improvement of vegetation.
Even more exciting from an environmental standpoint is the potential for full time herding of livestock on open range to use domestic livestock as a management tool. Examples include removing vegetation to reduce fuels in areas surrounding prescribed burns, targeted grazing of weed populations, and high intensity grazing to jump-start successional processes in rangeland vegetation. Researchers are beginning to understand the potential for management of rangelands to have positive impacts on carbon sequestration on a large area. Tools will be needed to realize that potential, and inherding may be an effective option.
The project demonstrates social benefits by providing a possible solution to the current battles over rangeland management between public lands ranchers and environmental groups. The current litigious environment leaves ranching operations vulnerable to unexpected impacts of a judge shutting them out of lands they have historically grazed as part of an integrated grazing system of public and private lands. These instances are stressful for ranchers, as well as economically difficult. Some ranches have sold to wealthy out of state buyers because of these issues, which impacts the social fabric of the rural community.
In addition, the project has the potential to solve the problem that the public has with impacts of livestock on wild and semi-wild areas.
During the 2015 pilot project field trip some attendees were surprised that the area had been grazed at all, because the carefully orchestrated movements limited the time livestock spent in any one area and left little sign that the area had been grazed.
Clearly for the project to be successful and widely adaptable, it most show that the approach that is economically viable. While numbers from the 2015 pilot were encouraging, there does appear to be a break-even point that is dependent on herd size, as well as the difference in weight gain by herded cattle vs. non-herded cattle (which was not measured in 2015). This economic viability is the primary question that will be answered if this project is funded.
Benefits and Impacts to Agriculture
We believe that this approach has the potential to be a game changer for livestock grazing in the western states. It is an approach that can break through the stalemate that defines the current conflicts between the various stakeholders of public lands management and provide a new tool for management of extensive privately-held rangelands.
Nationally, over 20,000 family ranching operations depend of grazing public land for economic viability. While this number may seem small, it reflects an important economic force within small remote western communities. Loss of access to public rangeland impacts these operations significantly, and also impacts the associated communities and rural social fabric.
Full time herding can also benefit private land rangeland graziers by improving vegetation, increasing weight gain, decreasing losses from predators and poisonous plants, and decreasing losses due to timely health interventions for sick animals. Full time herding on extensive rangelands is a natural extension of the concept of management intensive grazing that is becoming more familiar to stockman as the adoption of techniques and equipment such as electric fencing becomes more widespread. This initial paradigm shift will make it easier to explain the concept to operators, and hopefully speed the adoption.
Educational Outreach Plan
The project is most powerfully understood in the context of a field trip, but the area is remote and difficult to get to, requiring horseback travel. One field trip was done during the pilot project, and was instrumental in getting range professionals from the agencies interested and excited about the project. Two field days will be done in 2016.
The Elzingas are active on social media as a means to market their organic grassfed beef, which they ship nationally. The Alderspring Facebook page has over 2500 likers and the level of engagement is high. They also maintain an email mailing list of nearly 3000 that they send to twice per week. Many of the people on both their Facebook page and email list are actually other producers interested in what they do. Photos and videos will be posted weekly.
The Elzingas also manage a Facebook group called “Grassfed and Organic Beef Forum” with nearly 400 members, and are active on other Facebook groups and pages such as “Regrarians” (over 10,000 members), Holistic Management Discussion Group (about 2300 members), Regenerating Grassland (nearly 4000 members) The Grassfed Exchange (2600 members), Regenerative Agriculture (3700 members) and National Grazing Lands Coalition (about 1000 members). On their semi-professional Facebook page of GlennCaryl Elzinga, they are “friends” with some influential people in the holistic management movement, including Alan Savory. They will share on these channels as well.
In November 2015, Glenn was a keynote speaker at the Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference. He described the summer’s pilot project, and received a significant amount of interest. It is expected that the Center would be interested in a follow-up presentation in November 2016. We will also explore a presentation to the Idaho Section of the Society of Range Management.
Articles are planned for the following print publications: Beef Magazine, Capital Press, Stockman Grass Farmer, Western Farmer-Stockman, Western Beef Producer, Western Ag Reporter, Acres USA, Progressive Cattleman, and Beef Producer. Many of these have online versions and sections of their websites that would be appropriate to house articles permanently. Articles will also be submitted to local and regional papers.
Websites to which articles will be submitted include: On Pasture, The Grassfed Network, Holistic Management, Resilience, The Nature Conservancy’s blog, and others. Many of these have Facebook pages as well.
Educational Materials to be produced
Alderspring Ranch has several gifted photographers, as evidenced on their Facebook page and website. Photos are a powerful communication tool, and the project will be documented by abundant photographs demonstrating the project in a manner that is both inspiring and informative. Permanent photopoints and photographs will also be used as a monitoring tool for documenting vegetation response to the project.
Video is also a common medium used by Alderspring Ranch in its marketing efforts, and it is projected that a video per week could be produced. These will include demonstrations of herding techniques, interviews with riders, interviews with interested stakeholders, and overviews of the area and the vegetation.
A Powerpoint will be created to accompany presentations. The Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture uploads videos of its speakers to You Tube, and the November 2015 video should uploaded before the end of the year. Any other presentations that are recorded but not uploaded will be uploaded to Alderspring’s You Tube channel.
A number of articles are planned, both for the popular press, online venues, and semi-professional outlets such as Rangelands (Society of Range Management) and Extension and agency publications. Coordination with University of Idaho Rangelands Center may result in additional publications.
Producer adoption may be driven by outside pressure. To successfully meet sage grouse grazing guidelines currently being developed by BLM and USFS operators may require a level of livestock control comparable to inherding. Successful control of livestock, as demonstrated by this study, may allow for grazing in areas that may otherwise be closed, either completely or seasonally, in order to protect sage grouse. In addition, residual plant stubble height requirements, even in areas still open to livestock grazing use, may be impossible to meet without a higher level of control over rangeland livestock.
Operators in areas with high wolf predation, or large losses due to poisonous plants, should also be very interested in this project. These losses may be high enough to justify the increased costs associated with intensive full time herding. Currently no numbers exist by which operators can make an informed decision.
It is hoped that by implementing a successful pilot project, we can demonstrate that increased control of livestock movements through full time herding can actually be cost effective for the operator. It is also intended that this project will serve as a guide for implementation in order to avoid some of the costly pitfalls associated with early adoption.
Current reactions to the proposed project, and its prototype in 2015, has been mixed. Some operators within the Central Idaho Rangelands Network are very interested, while some are leery of the increased costs associated with increased management. Reactions from the presentation at the Idaho Sustainable Agriculture Conference were almost uniformly positive and interested.
Measures of reaction and adoption would include: interactions on social media, requests for more information, downloads of report, and requests for presentations. Before and after surveys will be taken at each field trip, adapting from the SARE approved survey, as a measure of response from on-site engagement.
- Dayna Gross, Senior Conservation Manager, The Nature Conservancy: provides input, guidance, advice and review.
- Glenn and Caryl Elzinga from Alderspring Ranch, May, Idaho (ranchers): Coordinate with agency personal, potential partners, additional interested stakeholders. Assist with the development of monitoring protocols for plant, ecological and economics. Oversee data collection and data entry. Glenn and Caryl have been producing grass fed organic beef for over 20 years, and have one of the largest areas under organic certification in the country. Caryl has a PhD in plant ecology and spent many years as a plant ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management.