In the past, bison were free to roam the western prairies. They moved in large herds and intensively grazed one area of native prairie grass before moving on. This natural grazing pattern allowed for native prairie grass to flourish and the bison to maintain healthy herd status. In 2001, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration launched a study on a national wildlife area in Southern Saskatchewan. This study attempted to mimic historical grazing patterns of bison with domestic beef cattle, using a system of rotational grazing on native prairie grass. The land was intensively grazed for a two to three week period for three consecutive years. Pasture was left untouched for 3-6 years to allow re-growth of natural vegetation.
During the study, it was found that this type of ecological grazing aids in the reduction of non-native fauna and reintroduces ecosystem diversity that existed when bison roamed the prairies. Non-native grass species such as the Yellow Starthistle are reduced by grazing and Common Burdock is reduced by trampling. Trampling also increases the abundance of microenvironments for flora and fauna. Ecological grazing has allowed for native grasses to grow and provide for other species in the environment.
Some native grasses such as spear grass and fescues are able to provide nutrients in fall and winter of the grazing season if left for the spring and summer months. Ecological grazing on native pastures can provide cattle diverse amount of native grasses to select in their diet. Since the pasture is not overgrazed, higher quality forage is available for livestock to consume, which can improve the average daily gain desired by the producers.
Although Ecological grazing has many benefits, it may not be ideal for the current Alberta beef production. For one cow to be sustained for 5 months on native grass, 7.09 acres of land would be required whereas a maintained grazing system could sustain the same cow using only 1.89 acres. This land requirement is not economically feasible for production cost of cattle or for the growing population. According to Darrell Holmstrom, a local beef producer, it would be more profitable to farm canola over cattle that use ecological grazing system. “We need a workable reality, and this just wouldn’t work.”
Currently, improvements to cattle grazing methods are needed to accommodate decreasing pasture land, profit needs and increasing demand for environmentally conscious practices. Forage Program Manager Grant Lastiwka believes that these practices need to begin with the producer. Grant remarks, “Who could do it better than producers, who are managing any grazing system to simultaneously balance economic, environmental, and human needs. This holistic system thinking makes us more economically and environmentally friendly. Optimization of these resources in this way creates a synergistic process that gets sustainable results”.
– Jodi Holstrom, Breanna Chmilar, Mark Graham, Elizabeth Gainer, Brittany Wiese, Sara Casebeer and Nicole Hiebert