By David Jessup
Our beautiful Big Valley used to suffer from cow pie pileup. Mounds of manure, all deposited in one place. Well, three places really, but concentrated in those spots to such a degree that the beautiful native grass couldn’t survive. I call them kill zones. They blighted six to eight acres in total.
One such bovine bathroom was in a little swale on top of the Big Valley East Ridge. A beautiful spot, rimmed on the north and south with ponderosa-covered sandstone cliffs. The great plains stretch away to the east; the snow-coveredMummyRangelooms to the west. A picnic place, a destination. Except for the cow pies. The manure reached a foot deep in some places. Instead of western wheat grass, blue grama and wildflowers, the place became infested with weeds – ragweed, pigweed, Russian thistle. They grow as high as your armpit.
Why did our cows chose such a place to defecate? Our herd – 60 cows, 2 bulls, 25 steers and 15 replacement heifers, spend October through February in theBigValley. They had 500 glorious acres to roam, full of stockpiled grass and alfalfa in the irrigated bottomland, supplemented with hay when the snow got too deep. All day they munched away, chewed their cud, and left some token cow-flops behind as they went, meager contributions to our hayfield nutrient needs. Come evening, they assaulted the steep side of east ridge like a lumbering line of soldiers, settled in our picnic spot, and made cow pies all night.
Was it warmer up there? Did the cliffs shelter them from the wind? Was it just habit? Did they perversely try to harm our hayfield fertilization program? We don’t know.
Some say it’s just what cows do, and there’s no use trying to interfere with nature. I’m not so sure. Cows have been domesticated over 6,000 years, so who knows what was “natural” to their long-lost ancestors. But from what we know of their wild relatives, it’s not natural for ruminants to return to the same spot night after night after night. The reason: predators. Wolves kept the bison herds moving. Cougars chase elk. Instead of 400 acres, natural herds had millions to roam. Predators were the roaming-incentivizers.
The predators are largely gone. But there is a substitute. Advocates of management-intensive grazing recommend electric fencing and rapid rotation through small pastures. The cows get a new motel to stay in every two-three days, sometimes even more frequently. They’re not allowed to return to the same five-star hotel every night. The manure gets widely spread around where it does some good: on the hay fields. An added benefit is that the grass gets more evenly grazed.
Electric fences are the wolves. They keep the herd bunched and moving.
In 2010 we fenced out the picnic spot, but the cows simply lined up around the perimeter and started a new kill zone. They had to be kept moving. In 2011 we started experimenting with the rapid rotation idea. We designed a fencing and watering system to mimic nature, with daily moves. That seemed to put and end to cow pie pileup. Now we can truly call ourselves producers of “conservation beef” that is healthy for the environment as well as for humans and cattle.
This year we’ll try re-seeding the kill zones with native grasses. Stay tuned for results.