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Posts Tagged ‘Great Plains’

061420prairie

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor
In Obert, Nebraska, agriculturists and environmentalists are joining forces to make a more sustainable future for all. In the background are croplands that have been converted from grasslands. In the foreground a rancher’s cow is enjoying inexpensive feed while grasslands get protected.

One reason I like the Christian Science Monitor, besides its great international coverage, is that it’s really good at finding win-win stories in which opposing sides of an issue find common ground.

Laurent Belsie reports, “Slowly, a prairie restoration movement is gaining momentum here in the Great Plains. After decades of plowing up native grasslands to plant crops, some ranchers are moving in the other direction. Helped by environmentalists in a sometimes uneasy alliance, they are restoring prairie pasture, which not only improves water retention and sequesters carbon in the soil, but can also improve their profits by creating better feed, allowing them to brand and sell their beef directly to consumers, or through ecotourism.

“ ‘I’m guardedly optimistic that we will see continued growth in that [revival] as the tourist business grows,’ says Rick Edwards, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska. …

“This new breed of ranchers faces formidable odds. Conversion of the Plains ​– one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands ​– to cropland continues. As of 2017, nearly a third of the northern Great Plains, a swath of land running from central Nebraska to southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, had been converted. In that year alone, more than half a million acres were plowed under. The silver lining: The rate of conversion slowed considerably compared with 2016 in every state except here in South Dakota. It’s not clear why. Also there was a pickup in cropland that had gone back to grass, although it’s not certain that will be a permanent switch.

“Ranching to preserve the grasslands requires new modes of thinking.

“ ‘We’re getting to understand how important healthy grasslands are,’ says Leo Barthelmess, a rancher outside Malta, Montana, and president of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance. For him, a high priority is making sure that his cattle do not overgraze an area, which means frequently moving the cows. When his father started ranching in the area in 1964, he moved cattle 10 times a year. Now, Mr. Barthelmes moves them 100 times a year, so ‘the grass has the opportunity to regrow.’

“The aha moment for Sarah Sortum, whose family diversified from strictly a ranching operation to an ecotourism business, came when she went searching for nesting areas of the greater prairie chicken on the family ranch. On the northern end, she heard their call and other birdsongs all over; on the southern end, ‘I didn’t hear anything,’ she recalls. ‘I didn’t hear chickens; I didn’t hear grouse; I didn’t hear all the other little birds I was supposed to be hearing.’ …

“An invasive red cedar, far more prevalent on the southern side of the ranch, was providing perches for birds that preyed on the ground-nesting prairie chicken and grouse. For years, getting rid of the trees had been a low priority for the family. Now that the birds were bringing tourists to the farm, removing the nonnative trees became a top priority.

“ ‘Before our tourism … we just managed for grass, because that’s how we make money’ ​– feeding grass to cattle, says Ms. Sortum. ‘Now … the biggest difference from just managing for grass is managing for that diversity, because we realize that everything has value now.’ …

“What changed [South Dakota rancher Jim] Faulstich was the farm crisis of the 1980s. ‘I was either done or I was going to change,’ he says. A typical cow-calf operator, he began looking into holistic management and realized the importance of preserving the health of the prairie. His son-in-law, with whom he ranches, is carrying on the tradition and has already converted some fields from cropland to prairie.

“It’s this kind of mental shift that has environmentalists excited.” Read more details here.

This is where my husband would launch into some version of the song “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” “The Cowman and the Environmentalist”? Hmm. Gotta fit the rhythm.

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