In 2006, Chad Weiszhaar had a revelation ... he didn't have to sacrifice one cent of profitability to build wildlife habitat. The same grazing practices that benefitted nesting birds in his home state of South Dakota actually improved quality and diversity of the native, mixed-grass prairie forages his cattle depended on.
Weiszhaar's paradigm shift began when he agreed to enter into a seven-year land lease with Ducks Unlimited (DU) that year. The purpose of the agreement was to see how his herd's annual grazing strategies affected survival of nesting waterfowl. The land he was to graze was part of DU's Revolving Land Strategy program in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).
"Because of its numerous shallow lakes, diversity and density of marshes, rich soils and warm summer climate, the Prairie Pothole Region is seen as one of the most important wetland regions in the world. It's one of the highest-priority landscapes for implementation of DU programs," explains Randy Meidinger, DU Conservation Program Manager.
DU uses the Revolving Land Strategy in South Dakota, along with other states in the PPR, as a way of holding ownership of selected parcels of land for one to seven years. During that time, the conservation group restores the land and develops protective management plans. At the same time, the land is leased to neighboring ranchers, who agree to create grazing plans that support beef production, while preserving wetlands and wildlife habitat. Once restoration is achieved and protective easements are established, the land is sold. Proceeds are reinvested in new PPR land, and the cycle repeats.
Weiszhaar's ranch sits in the midst of northeast South Dakota's PPR, where millions of waterfowl migrate and nest. The PPR covers a vast area of central Canada, most of eastern South Dakota and eastern North Dakota, and portions of Iowa, Minnesota and Montana.
HOLDING ON TO HABITAT
South Dakota's share of the PPR consists of some 1.3 million acres. The area is No. 1 of the 25 most threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent.
Prairie potholes are wetlands. They fill with snowmelt and rainwater each spring, providing breeding habitat for pintails, mallards, gadwall, blue-winged teal, shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads. Some of these marsh-type areas are temporary, others are permanent. The shallower ones tend to dry up by mid-summer, leaving behind lush grazing sites.
Over the last 40 years, agricultural development has led to the loss or severe degradation of 50 to 90% of the potholes in South Dakota, according to the EPA. Meidinger believes DU is making some serious headway in reversing the loss. He says it's a win-win.
"Both ranchers and waterfowl rely on native grasslands and wetlands in the PPR to survive," Meidinger says. "Through our Revolving Land Strategy program, we're assisting South Dakota's ranchers in identifying small changes in grazing practices that can have a beneficial impact on pothole habitat and waterfowl production."
Among the entities cooperatively working to protect and restore thousands of acres of wildlife habitat in South Dakota and across the nation are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, state wildlife and agricultural agencies, conservation districts, wildlife conservation groups, native tribes as well as more than 3,000 private landowners.
Meidinger worked directly with Weiszhaar through the rancher's seven-year lease, annually reviewing a map of the leased acres to assist in developing a grazing strategy.
"We reviewed information from the leased acres about average daily gains [ADG] for our cattle, forage quality and quantity, and nesting and brooding data for the waterfowl," Weiszhaar says. "This allowed us to identify grazing strategies that worked well for cattle, birds, grasslands and wetlands."
MORE NOT LESS
Prior to working with DU, the producer's ADG on heifers averaged 1.4 pounds. By the end of the seven-year study, that number was at 1.6, proving the program had added to productivity, not taken away from it.
Common native grasses adjacent to the wetlands include big bluestem, sideoats grama, Indiangrass, little bluestem and switchgrass. Twice-over, moderately intense grazing of paddocks resulted in the best ADGs and left grasses in the best condition for birds and other wildlife. Paddocks averaged 160 acres.
"With the rotational system we now use, 75% of paddocks are undisturbed at any given time during the grazing season, another benefit to waterfowl," Weiszhaar says.
In addition to using what he learned to develop a mutually beneficial grazing strategy, the rancher enrolled more than 50% of his own grassland acreage in conservation easements. Of the family's 13,700-acre ranch, 2,600 acres are used in row crops, including corn, alfalfa, wheat and soybeans. Of the remaining 11,100 acres, 7,000 are in perpetual grassland easements, which guarantee enrolled wetlands and grasslands will be maintained indefinitely. Wetlands cannot be drained, filled or burned. Grasslands cannot be plowed or converted to cropland.
DU's Meidinger says the Weiszhaar Ranch easement doesn't include restrictions on grazing timing, stocking rates or other grazing utilization of the acres.
"The only grass-use restriction, according to the easement agreement, is that hay cannot be cut or harvested until after July 15 of any given year," he says.
Weiszhaar added fencing to create undisturbed areas where waterfowl can hatch and raise offspring. He only harvests grass in nesting areas every few years to minimize disruptions.
"These grazing practices really leave grasses in the best possible health just prior to dormancy," Weiszhaar says. "That ensures better forage quality and more diverse grass species, while it creates excellent nesting conditions for ducks and grassland songbirds.
"Our main focus is on ranching, but putting the right grazing practices in place makes it possible for waterfowl to meet their annual needs, too. Altogether, the plan produces a balanced, sustainable ecosystem."
Editor's Note: For more information on Revolving Land Strategy and conservation easements, visit www.ducks.org.
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