Lehfeldts Change Grazing Practices to Benefit Cattle, Sage-Grouse
In 1886, Ludwig Lehfeldt began raising sheep on the Lehfeldt Ranch in Lavina, Mont. More than 117 years later, the Lehfeldt family continues to use those Rambouillet sheep genetics their ancestors developed to raise fine-wool Rambouillets.
Bob, Marie, Ben and Jamie Lehfeldt raise about 2,500 Rambouillet ewes, along with 200 black and red Angus commercial cows. The family serves wool and meat markets throughout the nation.
“We want to see it stay in the family,” said Bob Lehfeldt, 67, fourth-generation owner and operator of the Lehfeldt ranch.
Looking to be more sustainable and preserve more of their natural resources, the family volunteered to participate in conservation projects through the Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI), an initiative by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that funds voluntary conservation projects in sage-grouse strongholds across 11 western states.
The Lehfeldts run livestock within sage-grouse core area 4, one of the main sage-grouse breeding areas in Montana. Core areas were drawn around habitats with the highest density of breeding birds. Core areas cover only 1/3 of Montana’s sage-grouse habitat but account for 75% of all the known breeding sage-grouse.
NRCS designed a prescribed grazing plan for the Lehfeldt Rambouillet Ranch. This is an example of a site where the Lehfeldts are trying to maintain good condition. The grass adds hiding cover for hens nesting under the sagebrush.
With a long-term goal in mind, NRCS recommended a prescribed grazing plan for the ranch. Using funding from the Sage-Grouse Initiative, the Lehfeldts were able to make changes on their ranch that benefit sage-grouse habitat and the overall sustainability of the ranch.
They added a large livestock water storage tank, about five water tanks for cows and sheep, marked 11 miles of fence and split two big pastures into “five more manageable pastures,” according to Ben Lehfeldt, 38, Bob’s son.
“NRCS came in and did a study on how many AUMs (animal unit months) we think we’d pasture,” Bob said. “Then we were able to establish where to put fence, where to put the water tanks, and how to design them so that they function properly.”
According to Ben, before joining the Sage-Grouse Initiative, things on the ranch were a lot different than they are now. While the ranch had water, it was inconsistent.
“We were never sure if we would have water when we needed it,” Ben said. “We had few pastures with limited water, and we probably overgrazed. We had a hard time grazing farther way from the water source. Basically, we weren’t using our pastures to the best of their ability,” Ben said.
And after three years of work and collaboration with NRCS, the family is getting results.
“We see the benefits of being able to rest a pasture,” Ben said. “It really helped out those areas that were overgrazed before.”
“Establishing these pastures and rotational grazing has improved our bottom line,” Bob said. “We’ve had more grass, so our livestock does better. We’re selling a higher weight product. We’re also leaving some grass, so we’ve improved the range condition. It’s a plus for both the livestock and the sage-grouse.”
While the Lehfeldts were going to eventually make these upgrades to their ranch, the NRCS initiative helped them do it faster.
“The SGI gave us the ability to put it in all at once instead of waiting for 25 years and continuing to hurt the land,” Ben said.
He occasionally runs across sage-grouse as he’s going through the property. “It’s a lot less than my grandpa used to see, for sure,” Ben said. “But there’s more sagebrush now.”
In April, he says the sage-grouse gather at one particular lek—a grouse breeding ground—next to the country road at about 6 o’clock in the morning.
“During that time of year, it’s easy to see about 20 or so,” Ben said. “They come toward our irrigated ranch, and when it gets dry up there, they come toward the river.”
For the Lehfeldts, it was easier for them to sign on to this initiative than any other NRCS programs because it was an immediate time commitment.
“For this contract, NRCS was able to sit down and develop a plan that would help with the overall grazing, and that made it beneficial to do it at our ranch now,” Ben said.
And since they were one of the first ranches to get involved in this initiative, everything went pretty quickly.
“NRCS has a good staff that’s committed to making things go faster, so it’s been a pretty good operation,” Ben said.
Although the Lehfeldts’ contract is coming to a close, they plan to keep up the prescribed grazing plan.
“We will continue to manage and monitor grazing,” Ben added. “All of this should be a long-term improvement for our productivity. We know it’s a win for us. We just hope it’s a win for the sage-grouse too.”