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Published September 30, 2013, 12:02 PM

'Weedy junk no longer'

Neil Shook, manager of the Chase Lake Wetland Management District, tells this story about a group of bird-watchers who once toured it.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

WOODWORTH, N.D. — Neil Shook, manager of the Chase Lake Wetland Management District, tells this story about a group of bird-watchers who once toured it.

“They saw cattle grazing. They said, “Why do you have cows out here? Cows are bad.’ I said, “No, cows are good,’” Shook says.

The birders weren’t convinced. So Shook took them into a section of the district that hadn’t been grazed since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took over the land in the early 1960s. He and the birders looked closely and found lots of weeds, only a few native flowers and a thick mat of old, dead grass that hampered the growth of new grass.

Then Shook took the birders into a section hat had been grazed. Again, they looked closely at the ground.

“We could see all these native orbs, native flowers, the grass starting to come back. It really clicked with the birders,” he says. Shook, in his fourth year as manager of the district, has put into practice something that ranchers in the Upper Midwest have known for generations.

This summer, for the first time since the 1960s, sheep grazed on some sections of the district. It was the third straight summer cattle grazed on some tracts there.

“The prairie evolved with grazing. It needs grazing,” Shook says. “It’s not just the actual grazing, the eating of those plants. It’s also the hoof action on that soil. It’s also the nitrogen those animals leave. It’s the whole gamut.”

Before grazing, “Some of this (grassland) was weedy junk. It’s so much better now,” he says.

Shook, an Iowa native, had spent most of his professional career in eastern North Dakota, where cropland is common and grassland is not.

In contrast, Chase Lake, in central North Dakota, “has grass. It has cows. I realized I had to get cows on our stuff (wetland grass),” he says.

Shook knew right away that he needed to work with ranchers to achieve his goals for Chase Lake.

“I’m a biologist. I’m not a rancher. I don’t know squat about livestock. But I know prairie. I know what I want this stuff to look like,” he says.

Ranchers, in turn, “know what their animals can and can’t do,” he says.

Shook is working with about 25 ranchers, known as cooperators, who have cattle grazing on the wetland district.

One of the cooperators is Brent Kuss, a Woodworth farmer and rancher with a strong interest in soil health and alternative grazing practices, both on his own farm and at the wetland management district.

“He’s very livestock-friendly,” Kuss says of Shook. “He’s willing to work with us to help achieve his goals and to learn more about how we do things.”

Kuss says he and Shook meet before the growing season to discuss what parcels of grassland might be available, what Shook hopes to accomplish and how livestock can help achieve those goals.

Shook says he and his cooperators “have a true partnership.”

Kuss also grazes sheep at Chase Lake, the only cooperator to do so. Shook hopes to find more sheep cooperators.

Sheep and cattle eat different plants, so a combination of the two types of livestock would be good, Shook says.

Fee schedule

Cooperator grazing fees are based on U.S. Department of Agriculture rates for federal land. The rates involve AUMs, or the amount of forage required by an animal unit in a month.

Different types of livestock — a cow and a cow-calf pair, for instance — have different AUMs and are assessed different fees.

Typically, private landowners charge a per-acre fee for grazing. Chase Lake cooperators like the AUM approach, Shook says.

The Chase Lake Wetland Management District has different financial arrangements with its various cooperators for fencing.

Kuss, for instance, provides his own electrical fence, which his animals are used to, and receives a deduction for doing so.

There are other scenarios as well, including one in which the wetland management district provides the fencing materials, which remains property of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for which Shook works.

Not a reason to expand

Kuss isn’t adding more sheep and cattle to his operation because he’s grazing at the wetland management district.

Drought could change the district’s grazing needs, and Kuss doesn’t want to take for granted that pasture will be available there.

“I’m not going to expand my herd knowing that this (grazing at Chase Lake) may not be an option,” he says. “I’m trying not to become dependent on it.”

Grazing at Chase Lake, however, gives Kuss more flexibility in managing his own pasture. “We bring cattle down here (to Chase Lake) and we can bank grass at home,” he says.

Shook says he tells all his cooperators the same thing.

“Do not increase your herd size because you graze here,” he says.

Changing attitudes

Wildlife groups and ranchers have a long history of disagreements. But that’s changing, Shook says.

He squeezes his hands into fists and pushes them together, knuckle against knuckle. “For a long time, it seems like the wildlife community and the agricultural communities have been like this,” he says.

“If you’re 100 percent into crop production, I can understand it. But if you’re 100 percent into livestock or if part of your operation is livestock, well, there’s a lot more that the wildlife community and the agricultural community have in common than not,” he says.

Shook’s bottom line is simple: the wetland management district provides better habitat when it’s gazed.

“I remember going out one morning and walking on two tracts (of grassland). One had been grazed, the other hadn’t,” he says.

“Where the cattle had grazed, it was noisy with insects and birds. Where they hadn’t, it was dead silence. It was that remarkable a difference,” he says.

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