Advancing the Frontier of Stewardship
|A well-placed birdhouse |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
Stewardship of the land and water: It's at the heart of sustainable agriculture, and SARE's research portfolio. Management intensive grazing, cover crops, nutrient management, conservation tillage, composting and a host of other sustainable practices all aim to protect our natural resources- and cut costs- by keeping soil and nutrients on the farm.
Stewardship is also about protecting natural resources in a way that preserves the family business and nearby communities. While SARE grantees have made great strides in developing best practices, SARE will continually seek out new opportunities to help farmers and ranchers keep operations profitable while being excellent stewards of the land and water.
In Maryland, SARE cover crop researchers learned the best ways to manage not only rye, now the cover crop standard, but also mixtures of grasses and legumes. They found that mixtures are especially adept at keeping nutrients- particularly nitrogen- from leaching into the Chesapeake Bay. The mixtures also add nutrients for the next crop.
A SARE-funded research team in Minnesota created the Monitoring Tool Box to help farmers measure the impact of management intensive grazing systems on soil health and wildlife as well as farm finances and communities. The Tool Box quantifies the system's impact by evaluating pastures, streams, pests, economics and quality of life, among other indicators of change.
An Oregon researcher found that strip tillage effectively reduced soil disturbance. The method also saved time, labor and fuel, retained water, increased fertility and organic matter, and reduced erosion. Today, across the West, plows gather cobwebs as farmers hitch up tools that have a lighter touch on the land.
In Mississippi, educators disseminated information about sustainable livestock production to more than 1,600 participants at some 15 events, including face-to-face training sessions, field days and short courses. The project extended its reach by using a wide array of media, from popular press articles to the Internet. Multi-county teams throughout Mississippi continue to focus on sustainable beef production.
|Jane Koger, a patch burning pioneer. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
Getting the Word Out
The SARE library on stewardship is extensive, including such books as Managing Cover Crops Profitably and Building Soils for Better Crops; a conservation curriculum for small-acreage owners, Living on the Land; and bulletins, such as Smart Water Use on Your Farm and Ranch, Profitable Pork, Profitable Poultry and Diversifying Cropping Systems.
Patch Burning for Cattle and Prairie: Doing Well by Doing Good
Kansas rancher Jane Koger, who raises 125 head annually in a cow/calf herd, is trying an ambitious new strategy to protect the rare prairie ecosystem on her ranch. The resulting "patch burning" system she developed with conservation organizations, along with help from a SARE grant and her Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office, seems a promising practice to maintain the health of her 4,000 acres of tallgrass prairie and its diverse native species.
Like her ranching neighbors, Koger used to burn her entire acreage of prairie yearly to improve its nutritional value for cattle. Yet full-scale burning destroyed habitat for species like the rapidly declining greater prairie chicken, as well as native plants.
Koger learned about a patch-burning project in Oklahoma that featured burning one-third of the property each year, with a repeat cycle during the following three years.
Data from Oklahoma State University showed that yearling cattle will gain as well under patch burning as with annual burns.
Koger also rents land to two other ranchers, who raised 550 head of yearlings and 60 head of cows in the experimentally burned pastures. "We know we can produce Big Macs, but we're losing some of our bird species," she said. "This is a better way to protect them."
|Patch burning protects the prairie and maintains good cattle forage. |
Photo by Jerry DeWitt
The fires mimic historic patterns in nature. They also control the movement of the livestock, which migrate to the burned area a few days after the fire is out. The new growth is more palatable than older grasses, said Koger, who saw her cattle spend 80 percent of their time in a just-burned patch. Moreover, patch burning leaves two years of old-growth grass, creating more fuel for a hotter burn in the next cycle, which clears out invasive species.
More and more farmers and researchers are experimenting with patch burning. At South Dakota State University, for example, SARE-funded researchers are exploring the technique to better balance ranching with habitat diversity.
Koger understands that ecological considerations alone are not likely to be sufficient motivation for change among traditional ranchers. However, she says, "We do have high hopes that others might be willing to consider a proven double-bottom-line approach that allows them to do good for the environment while continuing to do well in the cattle business." [For more information, go to www.sare.org/projects and search for FNC04-496.]