Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2019 in the winter edition of National Woodlands magazine and is the first of a series of articles in partnership with The National Woodland Owners Association (NWOA).
By David Daigle
Longleaf pine forests and coastal prairies are among the most imperiled ecosystems in the nation, and both systems evolved with and were shaped by large grazing mammals. Their absence also shapes these systems and may lead to their loss over time.
Our family lives on and manages ranches and properties in Beauregard, Allen and Jeff Davis Parishes in Louisiana. We acquired our first 75 acres in 1982, at a time when we couldn’t afford improved pasture. Relearning the old secrets of rotational grazing of woodlands cattle began from there, and over the years we acquired six more tracts.
We have partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for many years, and our restoration activities have been aided by participation in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Longleaf Pine Initiative (LPI), and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). All of our property is registered as a Natural Area by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; we also participate in their Safe Harbor program for the red-cockaded woodpecker. The National Wild Turkey Federation has also assisted with restoration activities on the property. And the Calcasieu Soil and Water Conservation District has been supportive in their partnership with NRCS to assist us in the work we’re doing with longleaf pine pastureland efforts.
There is a great deal more we can learn about soil health in longleaf systems: how the grazer affects soil health, interactions with fire, and how targeted grazing with fire controls the encroachment of native brush species to the level where mulching and herbicides are no longer needed.
There is a great deal of variability in the age of our longleaf tracts. We have planted longleaf stands that are four, 10 and 16 years old, and natural stands from 40 to 75 years old that are both even-aged and uneven-aged. The one thing they all have in common is that they are included in a management plan that will attain old-growth characteristics in about 300 years. We really like the Stoddard-Neel approach where the forest is perpetuated indefinitely with selective thinning and natural regeneration. We are on a wetland-based landform where longleaf grows heavily stocked on ridges and mounds, while grasses and forbs grow on flat wet meadows. It’s a beautiful, patchy vegetative structure and composition that grows cattle, timber and wildlife well.
On the nearby Clear Creek mitigation bank, which has not been grazed since 1992, we are observing an increasing hardwood stem count, and are losing grass coverage to sweetgum, yaupon, Southern wax myrtle, maple and other native woody species. On our grazed lands, these woody species are greatly reduced.
Properly grazed grasses and forbs are more efficient at uptaking nutrients and water, and thus outcompete brush species resulting in maintenance of the grassland component of the savanna.
We can now burn our savannas every third year (our natural fire regime) where we use biomimicry with cattle, but we find that annual burns are needed to control brush species on ungrazed savannas. On our longleaf bluestem range of southwest Louisiana, stocking rates of one cow per 15 acres utilizes about 25 percent of the annual air-dried forage production, which is considered light grazing. Moderate grazing on our longleaf bluestem range is about a cow (animal unit) per 10 acres. Stocking rates are likely different in other longleaf community types, and a good biomimicry grazing plan starts with the help of a competent range conservationist and a forage inventory.
While the U.S. Forest Service and others have provided good grazing research and information in the past, I believe we need to continue that work to naturally maintain healthy longleaf “prairies with trees on them” in the future.
There is a great deal more we can learn about soil health in longleaf systems: how the grazer affects soil health, interactions with fire, and how targeted grazing with fire controls the encroachment of native brush species to the level where mulching and herbicides are no longer needed. Also, soil health interactions on pollinators and consumptive and non-consumptive wildlife, interactions with invasive species, and much more. We’ve held a number of workshops, tours and field days on the farm in coordination with NRCS, our local soil and water conservation district and the Louisiana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative.
We see a lot of wild turkeys near cattle. Also wading birds use flatwoods ponds more frequently in areas that are grazed at moderate levels. Whitetails use the herbaceous layer more frequently in moderately grazed pastures. Native species of bees nest in the ground near cow trails and near bare ground areas where cattle loaf or near cattle water troughs.
Our human species flourished early on savannas which provided them with food, shelter and an environment where they thrived and multiplied. Today, our savannas shelter us from the extreme heat and cold, from storms and hurricanes, while providing forest products and fuel, red meat for nourishment, wildflowers and bird life to enjoy, whitetails, wild turkeys and quail (maybe again soon) to hunt, and all the environmental benefits to air, soil and water.
We work and play on the same ground. I knew an ole free-range French cowman here many years ago, and he often passionately proclaimed, “This is a good place to grow cattle, timber and kids.” That was kind of our motto for years. Then in 1996, I met my ole friend Latimore Smith, who enlightened us on biodiversity and our longleaf ecological treasures. So, we amended our motto at that time to include “and lots and lots of special plants and animals.”
David Daigle is the President of the Louisiana Association of Conservation Districts and a member of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) Board of Directors. He is an NACD Soil Health Champion and the recent recipient of the Longleaf Alliance Gjerstad-Johnson Landowner of the Year.
This article appeared in the 2019 winter edition of National Woodlands magazine. The publication is a product of the National Woodlands Owners Association.