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Managing with a Plan

August 2012
D'Jeane Peters, Public Affairs

In this photo, Jim Taylor shows one of his his stockwater tanks.
Jim Taylor, rancher near Laurel, Mont., installed stockwater tanks throughout his ranch to help facilitate his seven-pasture, deferred rest-rotation grazing management system.

Jim Taylor of Laurel, Mont. is a third generation livestock producer, bank manager, and a Carbon County rancher with a plan. For the last 16 years, he has implemented a grazing system on his 3,500 acres that brings together rotational grazing and forage management. Taylor runs anywhere between 70 and 100 head of cattle on shares, grazing them from May until October.

His sense of organization is admirable. Each of his pastures is named in an Excel spreadsheet, and the number of days each pasture can be grazed is listed, factoring in the number of cattle being run that year. This type of planning is easy, he says, “because when you plan in the winter, you are more likely to stick to it.” He moves his cows throughout the summer every two to three weeks through a seven-pasture, deferred rest-rotation grazing system, and rests (does not graze) one of his pastures each year.

Taylor received technical assistance from Matt Ricketts, area rangeland management specialist with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Together, they designed a grazing plan that would allow Taylor to increase the carrying capacity of his land and preserve his forage. “Over the year, there’s enough [grass] carry-over,” says Taylor. Getting this plan in place required some additions to his property, including cross fences and water tanks, which were cost-shared by NRCS. Taylor is also enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which pays ranchers annually for the environmental benefits they produce.

While his grazing system is designed to thrive in a tough, dry climate (about 13-14 inches of annual precipitation), it also does well when he receives too much rain. When a 150-year flood hit his property in the spring of 2011, his riparian area (the green, wet area adjacent to a stream) weathered it well. According to Ricketts, his healthy riparian areas were full of diverse woody species and a dense mass of sedges, rushes and grasses, which stabilized the area and prevented it from eroding. “Erosion formed head cuts above and below his property, but the head cuts stopped once they reached the Taylor place due to the outstanding condition of the riparian area,” Ricketts said.

And all of this is a result of his grazing management system, which has improved grass and forage production, making his land more drought and weed resistant. Much of this, according to Ricketts, can be attributed to his grass and forb diversity. While important for healthy grazing land to raise cattle, wildlife also need the same diversity.

Early on in the planning process, sage-grouse habitat was identified. “Insects contribute to the survival of sage-grouse chicks,” Ricketts said, “and forb diversity contributes to an abundance of insects.” He said this simply illustrates that effective grazing land management for cattle production is also good for sage-grouse.

While touring Taylor’s ranch, he pointed to an area he knew to be a lek, or sage-grouse mating ground. “You could sit there and watch them for hours. It’s like they don’t even notice we’re here,” says Taylor. Not only are sage-grouse benefitting from better nesting, brood rearing, and wintering habitat, but other species like sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, nongame birds, deer, and many other wildlife species are as well. Managing to conserve his grass has resulted in full cattle, plenty of grass, and happy sage-grouse. That is certainly nothing to “grouse” about.

Photo shows cattle grazing in sagebrush.
Taylor uses a grazing system that has improved his grass and forage production, making his land more drought and weed resistant. Sagebrush also offers valuable food and cover for sage-grouse.

Cattle graze sagebrush grasslands on the ranch.
Summer photo of dry sagebrush grassland with good vegetative cover.
The grazing management plan on Jim Taylor's ranch has created healthy riparian areas, full of diverse woody species and a dense mass of sedges, rushes, and grasses.