Rotational grazing revives the prairie in Murray County


Restoration of the 45-acre prairie was overdue for mid-contract maintenance, but COVID-19 restrictions made a prescribed burn impossible.

Jim Sehl and Wendy Krueger were looking for another option, and Schmidt was looking for more pasture. He already had portable water systems and solar fences.

“Sheep mimic bison, which would pass and graze on these grasses if (the grasslands) weren’t scorched by fires, pre-white colonization,” Sehl said.

It would take a federal rule change to make the single pilot project an accepted practice. If federal and state rules allowed, such a change could potentially pave the way for grazing more than 2,000 acres of unused land within a four-mile radius of Schmidt’s Murray County farm.

Schmidt operates approximately 200 acres and raises pigs and approximately 250 breeding ewes. A vocal promoter of no-till and cover crops, he is vice-president of the Minnesota Soil Health Coalition.

Slayton-based NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Allisa Wendland worked with Schmidt to develop a site-specific rotational grazing plan. Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist Megan Howell noted which plants and parts of plants were eaten. She will compare grazed enclosures with an ungrazed control plot.

“The CRP must be there to protect against soil erosion. It provides water quality by being an infiltrator and filtration system, and it provides habitat for wildlife, ”said Wendland during a site visit in September 2020.“ For a rancher, his goals are obviously to feed their animals, to keep them in good health and to bring them to the market. Here it was a balance on how we can do both aspects.

Left to reseed each year, grasses eventually accumulate a mass of dead plant material that chokes off new growth.

“Regeneration this year has been increased tenfold,” Schmidt said. “Songbirds, butterflies, bees, it’s all intertwined in one way or another. We cannot have one without the other. Increase this diversity – not only in plants, but also in wildlife.

“Our soils are going to benefit, which means we can infiltrate more water, which reduces runoff, soil erosion, wind erosion,” he added. “We recycle these nutrients. … Now the microbiology is working the way it should, and it takes that rotten weed, breaks it down, and turns it into nutrients the way it should.

The project was also successful in terms of grazing.

“As far as the animals are concerned, it has worked very well. They were getting, I would say, a diverse forage mix and a lot of things that they had never seen before, ”Schmidt said after the 60 day grazing period. “It was interesting to see what they were eating.”

Instead of heading straight for the grasses, as they had done on other pastures, the sheep avoided barbon and ate more herbaceous plants.

The giant barbon, which had become woody on August 20 when grazing began, was not affected. Sheep trampled on it for more tender species, including the softer large barbon, as well as small barbon, oat grama, wild bergamot, yarrow, red clover and a few species. more tender sunflower.

“The trampled grass gives it a protective mat. It acts as the first level of raindrop protection, and this will help protect against soil erosion, but it will allow water to seep in as it is not a solid mat. Plus, it acts a bit like a blanket or a shade blanket, ”Wendland said.

The action of the hooves benefits wildlife such as pheasants, waterfowl, songbirds and pollinators.

“They open up small spots in the ground to allow herbaceous plants and grasses to grow that may have been smothered due to the thickness of their stand,” Howell said. “It’s important from a wildlife perspective in many ways. Beyond creating successive different habitats, it will also create a higher level of diversity throughout the stand, which is important for all kinds of pollinators and wildlife.

While he and his father, Dale, ran the pens more often after the frost, Schmidt said the animals remained in good physical condition. He does not give supplements while the animals are on pasture.

Sheep pawed in the snow to feed on fresh, cool-season grasses.

“Cool season grasses can invade our prairies here in Minnesota if left unchecked, so having animals there depleting the carbohydrate storage of cool season grasses before winter can help native species bounce back the next.” growing season, ”Howell mentioned.

The following year, Howell saw more secondary oats, yarrow, sunflower and fleabane species.

The Schmidts started with 50 animals, then added 25 more. The pens, averaging around 0.75 acres, were grazed for one to five days, depending on their size, how much forage they contained and how fast the sheep ate.

“It’s as close as possible to replicating what (Mother Nature) has done before, and it’s obviously a win for wildlife as they have a stronger, more diverse population with less competition for species.” invasive and cool-season grasses like brome, “Howell said.” This will be a better habitat for brood-rearing pheasants, for nesting habitat. The more diversity we can have in the landscape, the better it is. ‘is for ground-nesting birds, grassland birds. “

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