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PORTAGE - Many of Wisconsin's Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), including the Horicon Marsh, have grassland habitats that are dependent on disturbance to maintain their diversity and productivity.   

One of the methods of disturbance has been prescribed burns but Mary C. Anderson, a grazing specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), points out that burning is expensive and there are better ways to encourage diversity and productivity in these natural areas.

Speaking at the winter grazing meeting in Portage, sponsored by Dodge, Sauk and Columbia County UW-Extension together with several other conservation agencies, Anderson encouraged producers near a wildlife management area to consider making use of the feed available there.     

Anderson has had 25 years experience managing a grazing farm, working in a professional capacity writing grazing plans, consulting on farm directly with grazing producers and coordinating grazing networks.

She said conservation grazing is about getting the right kind and right number of animals to the right place at the right time, thus controlling the exposure of plants to grazing animals. 

Healthy soils and forage plants on conservation lands produce healthy livestock with weight gains comparable to other pastures or grazed grasslands.

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Grazing on DNR land

Jerry Huth, an Oakfield beef producer, lives at the north end of the Horicon Marsh and shared what he has learned about grazing on DNR land.

Huth, along with farm manager, Josh Scharf, own and operate a 140 head cow/calf operation. He has been in the registered Hereford business for over 50 years and together Huth and Scharf are creating a commercial Hereford/Angus herd. From the Hereford herd, they market 20-30 bulls a year and surplus females.

The steer calves are sold to conventional feeders and feedlots.

The goal of the Hereford/Angus herd is to create high marbling, maternal packages whose offspring excel on grass and in a feedlot.

They have practiced managed, rotational grazing on 160 acres for over 25 years. Two years ago they started incorporating into their grazing system an additional 135 acre DNR tract that is contiguous to their farm.

His contract with DNR limits times when the cattle can be on the marsh but between spring nesting periods and the fall hunting season his animals feed on the variety of forages and keep the brush and weeds under control.

In winter the cattle return to the marsh where they feed on hay in the bunks placed there. Through the manure the marsh managers hope to establish some clovers in an area that is dominated by reed canary grass.

Huth says, “One of the great things with working with the DNR is I pick up a lot of information and the resources to learn more about managing the pastures. We do a lot of frost seeding on our pastures and we will likely do some on the DNR land as well.”

Anderson says grazing is a flexible tool that can be customized to meet a variety of habitat objectives. By customizing stock rate, timing, density, duration, seasonality and return interval, wildlife managers have a powerful tool for manipulating and managing habitat.

Conservation grazing can help to reduce the quantity of invasive or exotic species, depending on the species of grazing animal and the particular plant species.

Grazing plan

Before utilizing DNR land a farmer must write a grazing plan that includes goals. She points out that goals and objectives for DNR land are different than for farm land.

A secure perimeter fence and a water source are requirements of the plan.

Huth says the DNR helped him with the establishment of the water line and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped set up the design that included fencing.

While graziers generally like to clip in the early part of the season when pastures are lush, clipping in the public areas cannot be done until July 15 to allow for nesting.

One benefit provided by the cattle is that they will graze on invasive species like box elder, cottonwood and willow, which can help to slow their spread within grasslands. Cattle will also help to suppress certain herbaceous weeds, such as brome, bluegrass, reed canary and wild parsnip.

Wildlife species that depend upon functional grasslands benefit from more diversity in the grasses and fewer invasive species.

Conservation grazing projects are occurring in 48 different areas across Wisconsin. The projects are monitored closely to measure the effects grazing has on wildlife populations, vegetation composition, structure, density and cost effectiveness.

Farmers interested in grazing on wildlife management areas near them will have an opportunity to learn more on Aug. 24 when Huth will host a pasture walk sponsored by both the DNR and the Hereford Association.

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