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Cows and calves get a look at their new buffet of grassland after arriving at the Big Slough Waterfowl Production Area west of Avoca, Minn. (Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service)

Grazing wetlands: Cattle producers partner with U.S. Fish & Wildlife to bolster federal lands

AVOCA, Minn. — A chorus of bellars arose from the Big Slough Waterfowl Production Area Friday morning as cattle farmers Travis and Cory Reith first unloaded a livestock trailer filled with cows, then a second trailer of calves.

The cattle talk didn’t subside until each cow had been reunited with her calf. Once all was right with the pairs, they set out across the land with its more-than-knee-high dried grasses to graze on their new temporary home west of Avoca.

The Reiths are among half a dozen farmers in the 12-county region of southwest Minnesota to contract with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service this spring to graze federal Waterfowl Production Areas. They have participated in the conservation grazing program since it was established through the Windom Wetland Management District (WMD) in 2014.

Marty Baker, biological science technician at the Windom WMD, spearheaded the program locally, but it’s been a successful tool on USFWS lands in Minnesota for at least 15 years.

Actually, it’s a win-win for both the USFWS and the livestock producers who apply to participate.

For the next 40 days, the Reiths will have about 80 to 90 of their stock cows, plus their calves, grazing on 100 acres of federal land well-used by wildlife and waterfowl hunters each fall. For the brothers, it gets their cows and calves out of the cattle yard and onto grasslands, without putting early grazing pressure on their own pastures.

By giving the cattle more room to roam, it also reduces the risk for sick calves, said Travis Reith.

The advantage for the USFWS is that the cattle (bison, horses, deer, sheep and other hoofed animals are also welcome grazers for the program) dine on the early, more undesirable cool season grasses. This grazing — done early in the season — results in the slowed development of cool season grasses, reduced seed production and plant weakening, which gives the native warm season grasses a competitive edge.

“If there’s a bunch of brome grass or weeds, we need to do a management action of some kind — either prescribed burn or grazing,” Baker said.

In the first year the grazing program was introduced in the area, Baker had his skeptics. Sportsmen were fired up about the presence of cattle on the public hunting grounds, but Baker calmly asked them to give it time — just a few months to wait for the proof that grazing would be good for the land.

“It was a little unknown,” Baker said of conservation grazing when it was introduced here five years ago. “They certainly didn’t know what to expect — what the outcome would be.”

Baker said he was even cursed at by one man.

“I told him we were going to graze it (in the spring) and in August, he and I could go out and take a walk,” Baker said. The walk wasn’t necessary; the man had made several visits to the property after the cattle left in June and saw for himself what was happening.

“He admitted that it looked very good,” Baker said. “It looked like we did a prescribed burn in the spring and it grew after the prescribed burn. It looked healthy — there were long seed heads and a lush habitat. The grazing convinced him it was a good thing.

“There’s less and less of the brome grass and more of the habitat that we do want,” he added.

“The pheasants and the ducks are still out here,” noted Cody Reith.

Baker has contracts with six livestock producers to graze eight of the Fish & Wildlife Service’s 75 WPAs this spring. The grazed lands amount to just over 5 percent of the Windom Wetland Management District’s acres.

He hopes to expand the program, and will put out a call for bids with livestock producers again in September when he has compiled a list of WPAs where they’d like to have grazing done. It’s a competitive bidding process, he noted. Meanwhile, anyone interested in grazing cattle on WPAs may email him at martin_baker@fws.gov.

Grazing contracts are 45 days in length, starting on May 1 each year, and are for up to three years on any particular parcel. The Reiths are in the third and final year of grazing on the Big Slough WPA in Murray County and also have a contract to graze on a WPA in Cottonwood County. They plan to continue grazing the federal lands in the future.

The livestock producers are required to install their own fencing on the WPA, and remove it after the contract expires. Portable corrals are a necessity as well. It does take work, and perhaps it’s not the answer for everyone.

But aside from the initial fencing and the removal after the third year, Travis Reith said it reduces his workload during the 45 days they’re grazing.

“It’s minimal labor out here,” he said. “If you have the time and the equipment to do it, it’s probably worth it.”

Once the cows are removed from the WPA in mid-June, they will be go to Reith’s pasture lands in a rotational grazing system.

As for the grazed WPA, Baker encourages people to visit it in August. Then, they will see the impact grazing has made, from the increase in flowering plants and seed production to the decrease in invasive, non-native species. What visitors will see is a structurally diverse plant system that is a benefit to both waterfowl and wildlife.

“This has opened up my eyes a lot more on how we can manage prairies,” Baker said. “With this new tool, cattle graze differently than a prescribed burn works. It’s been a good fit.”

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