This year, OWC became a first-time sponsor of the 16th annual Grazing School for Women organized by a variety of local Municipal Districts and Counties, research groups, and stewardship groups such as Cows and Fish. While grazing schools have played a major role in improving the understanding and management of sustainable grazing and range health for over 20 years, the new women-only schools do more, offering a unique networking and collaborative learning environment specifically designed for ranching women.
The format and content of sessions are the same for women’s and open, male-dominated schools. Alternating indoor and outdoor sessions make theory and hands-on learning easier.
The women’s schools use female presenters as much as possible to showcase their skills and expertise. “The women’s schools are different,” says Norine Ambrose of Cows and Fish. “Women work together more and ask more questions, so our discussions are more wide-ranging. They aren’t afraid to bring up their problems. We might be talking about grass management or electric fencing but a question can lead us to succession planning, or economics and book-keeping, maybe cattle handling and hauling.”
“Between a quarter and a third of our participants are returnees,” says Ambrose. “They come to learn, to network, to make new friends, and for a bit of a holiday. It can be a rare chance to get away, maybe with a friend. Every participant has a unique situation; some are local, others drive several hours to attend. Some are solo managers, some work with a partner, their management styles, ranch size, operation type, are all different.”
All participants attend the school to learn new grazing skills that will help them operate more efficiently and effectively, and in turn, manage their livestock within a healthier landscape. The school is focussed on principles that apply to any scale of operation. The information is presented in a manner that is easy to understand and apply, but many women gain much more than information alone.
“Each school provides an opportunity to create social connections and for professional networking — people in similar situations in an environment where they can bounce ideas off of one another or ask for support,” says Ambrose. “I see networks of better stewards developing across the province.”
Livestock grazing can look really simple from an outside perspective: check the fence, close the gate, keep the animals in the field indefinitely. However, this type of passive grazing management can lead to overgrazing and less healthy range with patches of bare ground, compacted soils, overgrowth of undesirable plants, and slower or decreased growth of desirable plants. In such an environment, calves don’t grow as well on the lower quality forage, certain types of plants and wildlife are less frequently found in the stressed habitat, soil can be lost due to increased risk of erosion, and water capture is reduced, with water forming pools or running off-site in overland flow rather than soaking into the land. While this is an extreme situation that can take years to develop, ranchers at Grazing School learn to recognize more subtle signs of declining range health and are equipped with the tools that can help them improve the management and health of their land and livestock
There are four main factors that affect the impact of grazing on the land: the time of year livestock are in an area, the number of animals in an area, the length of time livestock graze a pasture (grazing duration), and the time between livestock leaving a pasture and returning to graze it again (rest).There’s no single “silver bullet” combination of these factors that will both maintain or improve range health and be cost effective — each rancher has to figure out what works best for their plant communities, their operation, and their landscape. Grazing School equips participants with usable tools and methods to judge the impact of management changes in their operation.
Identifying the plant community of a pasture and assessing its health are two of the basic first steps towards managing for better range health and sustainable ranching. As such, plant identification and range health assessment are among the first topics covered at grazing schools. With these basics in hand, the school moves on to various other topics that can improve both grazing returns and range health.
Areas around water are particularly sensitive to all of the same factors that affect range health. Cattle like to hang out near water sources, which can lead to ecological damage in sensitive riparian areas. Overgrazing can destroy willows and other deep-rooted plants that stabilize the banks, and allow undesirable and invasive plants to colonize instead. Heavy trampling by livestock can impact the physical structure of the banks, leading to bare ground, erosion, slumping, and even altering the watercourse itself. When the riparian area is damaged, the land under and around streams and wetlands cannot properly perform their key ecological functions, such as water filtration, storage, and release, bank stabilization, and important wildlife habitat.
The all-women Grazing School includes a special component that focuses on riparian areas. It presents information and ideas for effectively managing riparian areas which range from delaying grazing to later in the season, treating riparian areas as separate grazing units, and locating drinking water in troughs away from natural water bodies. Not only does this encourage livestock to graze less sensitive areas; calves tend to grow better when a clean water source is available. Healthy riparian areas are better for the water and the animals, as, like humans, they prefer the clean water.
Taking care of riparian areas can help ranchers pay their bills; in some cases, strategies for maintaining riparian health can lead to cost savings. For example, if cattle need to cross a creek, engineering a ford for them can reduce the damage they do to the banks and creek-beds, and lessen the need for additional fencing or restoration work. Calves also tend to have better health and growth when a clean, reliable water source is available. The main beneficiaries of their stewardship, however, are all of the living creatures—including humans— that access water downstream; they benefit directly from a clean, dependable, water source that is filtered by soil and sustained by a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
Along with range management tools that returning participants say they have incorporated into their business operations, Ambrose hopes the women who attend Grazing School will share and spread stewardship aspects of ranching, especially with people living in urban areas. This sentiment is echoed by Amanda Miller, grazing specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks. “There’s a perception, mainly among urban people, that cattle are bad for rangelands,” she says. “However, grazing is an essential part of a healthy grassland ecosystem – it can provide the habitat grassland birds need to nest successfully. Plant communities depend on the environment and each has an ideal season for grazing. Before settlers, bison migrations matched that timing; the grasslands and bison evolved together. Ranchers can mimic those natural grazing patterns by using tame forages to complement native range and maintain or improve range health and landscape function.”
“We need urban people and our political representatives to recognize the value of agriculture to all of us.” Ambrose adds, “Our food production is part of healthy landscape function, clean water, and conservation of wildlife habitat. As we grow and learn to improve our grazing operations, we can make things better for everyone in the watershed.”