Wetlands Grazing

cows grazing wetlands

Key Results from our First Year:

  1. Wetland plants provide quality nutrition and regrow quickly to allow multiple grazings per season while maintaining cow condition for late lactation, yearlings, and dry cows. Next year we will experiment with peak lactation cows.
  2. Short moves (4-12hrs) are a minimum to keep hoof impact reduced on wet soils. Waiting until seasonally wet soils dry allows for less soil impact but the forages are more mature.  Next year we will monitor how soils recover from varying degrees of hoof impact.
  3. Cow comfort is benefited by cooling and reduced fly loads.
  4. Walkways are expensive to build, but open up new grazing and minimize impact to both wetlands and cows. We estimate a 5 year payback and a 20 year life.
  5. Plant species were evenly grazed by cattle, giving advantage to perennials when grazed multiple times.  Single grazing timing influences which plants reach maturity.  We will continue to monitor and adjust to provide a diversity of wetland species.

Thanks USDA NCR-SARE for funding the grant to do this applied research!

Want to do research on your farm? Apply for a SARE Farmer Rancher Grant

Wetland Grazing Background

In the North Central region there are over 20 million acres of remaining wetlands with many of these being wet meadows and shallow marshes. The tallgrass prairie and scattered wetlands of the Great Plains evolved with intense disturbance from fire, downpours, drought, and herds of large herbivores that grazed and trampled them. Without these disturbances both upland and wetland vegetation will shift from more diverse plant communities to more late-stage monocultures of invasive plant species. In wetlands, these invasive plants, such as cattail and river bulrush, tend to overrun the wetlands making it less suitable for many other plants and wildlife. This is a common problem for wetland managers and is the case on our property where a large monoculture of cattails dominates nearly 15 acres of wetlands that we have previously not been grazing.

Sustainable agriculture is about using systems that optimize productivity with ecosystem services. Research is showing that properly managed grazing by cattle can appropriately disturb wetlands and the surrounding uplands to create a healthier ecosystem that balances sustainable agriculture with ecosystem services. The key factor is timing of the grazing to balance livestock nutrition, plant growth, wildlife needs, and labor available. However, this research has not used Holistic Management principles and few farmers of the region intensively manage their wetland areas, most either fence livestock out or allow free access.

Most management in the region’s wetlands has also focused on beef cattle. Dairy cattle need walkways for daily access to the milking parlor. If unmanaged, these walkways will quickly become deep mud in the wetlands causing damage to wetland soils and stress to the cows from slipping and sticking in the mud.

What we are doing:

We will extend our Holistic Management grazing planning to the wetlands, to properly time the cattle grazing, which incorporates quick moves, from 12hr to 3 days, with long rest periods, of 30 days to one year. This system uses biological monitoring of the cattle, plants, and wildlife to provide feedback for decision-making about timing, intensity, duration, and rest for grazing. The plan will be monitored throughout the year, as laid out in the timeline, for livestock performance, forage value, and ecosystem changes.

To manage the walkways, we will install low impact wetland crossings to minimize stress to both the cattle and the wetland soils. As our wetlands are at the most six inches deep, these crossings can be basic boardwalks that do not impact the soils or water flow. Boardwalks will be made of pressure treated wood on top of concrete block, 36” wide and long enough to cross the wetland at the narrowest crossing points. These type of crossings could be used by farmers throughout the region where livestock need to make frequent crossings of shallow perennial wet areas.

A secondary benefit of putting in boardwalks is the ability for farm visitors to explore the wetlands and see our sustainable agriculture methods in practice, helping us connect people with where their food comes from and how it can be raised in ways that bring together agriculture and conservation goals.