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Whether it's Central Ohio or Eastern Montana, putting grass to work can mean profits for livestock producers.

Tim White, Editor, Ohio Farmer

October 28, 2014

6 Min Read

I joined a group of local beef, dairy, sheep, goat and even hog graziers last week to learn more about the art of pasturing animals. The meeting was hosted by the Fairfield County Soil and Water District and featured experts from the Natural Resources Conservation service including, Troyce Barnett, Ohio NRCS grazing specialist and T. J. Oliver, NRCS area resource conservationist and Bob Hendershot, retired Ohio NRCS grazing specialist.

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After two three-hour evening sessions during the week and a four-hour field tour, we each got a grazing certificate of participation. Despite being educated by such a distinguished group of teachers and the certificate, I mainly learned how much there is to grazing I don’t know.

Fortunately participation included being presented with the largest three-ring binder, I have ever owned. I mean I got a big one for graduate-level insect taxonomy, but nowhere near the size of this baby.

"When we auction one of these off at the national grazing seminars, it typically brings $120," Hendershot told the group. Whenever the specialists were quizzed about a topic they meant to cover, but didn't get to, we were told, "It's in the back of that big old green book." And I have no doubt that just about anything you could ever need to know about grazing is somewhere in the binder's 400 or so pages. On the other hand, if I had a question, I might be inclined to call one of these gentlemen because I can guarantee you they have ten times as much information in their brain cells.

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All the talk about managing our cool season grasses for top productivity took me back to a meeting I attended earlier this month in Bozeman, Mt. My best college buddy Jim Baer is a generous donor to the American Prairie Reserve. The APR was founded in 2002 with the goal of making it the largest preserve in the continent of the grassland prairie that once covered so much of this country. It is located in eastern Montana just north of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, which hugs the banks of the Missouri Breaks, and between the Fort Belnap Indian Reservation to the west and the Fort Peck Reservation to the east.

At least 95% of the land in the reserve has never been tilled. The area has been home to large scale ranching. However, the challenges of ranching in the area have seen the region losing 10% of the population a year as the next generation has chosen to move on.

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Under the guidance of its board of directors, the reserve currently controls 305,000 acres and is shooting for 3.5 million. They have acquired 65,003 acres of land from ranchers who have chosen to sell. The tracts include another 245,054 acres of Bureau of Land Management land leased for grazing rights. So far the horizontal shale oil opportunities that have exploded in neighboring North Dakota have not been detected in ground below the APR, for which the group's leaders expressed relief.

Called the American Serengeti by film makers for National Geographic and others, the reserve is open to public use and is visited by tourists, adventurers and scientists. Conservation is the main goal and already a herd of more than 400 genetically pure American bison roam 31,000 acres of land where many fences have been removed or improved to be wildlife friendly. Mainly that means replacing the bottom strand of barbwire with a smoothing high tensile line that allows native antelope to slip under the fence. The group has a goal of increasing the herd to 10,000 b 2030.

As I said the land is bordered by two Indian Reservations. Montana State Rep. Clarena Brockie, dean of students at the Aaniiih Nakoda College at Fort Belnap, opened the meeting. She described the role of the bison to the native culture and showed photos depicting the Buffalo dance performed by the women of the tribes. She also showed maps of the how the existing reservations had gradually shrunk from the vast tracts original designated for the Gros Ventre and Aaniiih tribes before gold was found and sod busters arrived.

She also noted that unemployment in the area was running at 70%. During the question and answer period a young man from the reservation spoke up and apologizing to his elders for being bold, described how the return of the bison to the area brought a sense of hope to the people. "Seeing the bison every day near our homes assures us that conservation can be applied to people as well as animals and landscape," he told the group.

The APR has as one of its goals improving the economic condition of the people in the area. Already the reserve has found employments for several hundred fulltime and seasonal workers, but this year they have embarked on a new way to support the local ranchers. They have created their own Wild Sky brand of beef. The Angus product is from grass-fed animals born and summered in the area and then moved to pastures further south for finishing. The high end product is being sold through select markets on the East and West Coast.

I sat with one of the ranching couples who raise Wild Sky beef, Michelle and Stephen Fox. They are members of the Gros Ventre tribe at Fort Belnap. Their F Diamond X Ranch is on land Michelle's family has worked for 125 years.

"From the time I hit the ground, my lifestyle has been intertwined in ranching and the agricultural way of life," she says in a brochure about the project. "I can remember being a little girl, maybe 5 or 6, out checking the cows with my grandfather."

As we talked about agriculture, it became clear things are not that different way out in Montana. The Foxes kids are active in FFA and 4-H. The couple is eager to explain the role GMOs and antibiotics play in agriculture. They are very pleased with the production they are getting from the Summitcrest bull semen they are using to A.I. their cows. They are looking for ways to make their farming more profitable.

Stephen says adjusting their fences to make them friendlier to wildlife is about the only change he has had to make to qualify for the program. He sees it as good way to help younger cattle producers successful especially after the current high prices tail off.

"Montana is a great place to raise cattle and kids," Stephen told me. "If you remember the story of Lonesome Dove, the cattle drive brought the cattle up to Montana to take advantage of the grass."

I could tell he was another one of those guys who has the big green book stored in his head. There's no doubt the family will continue to thrive putting nature's grass resources to work on the American Prairie.   

About the Author(s)

Tim White

Editor, Ohio Farmer

Tim White has written about farmers and farming for 30 years. He's taken a seat in tractors and combines and kitchen tables all across the state of Ohio. Whether he is at the Ohio Farm Science Review, Power Show Ohio, the Ohio State Fair, or a county field day, he runs into friends from all aspects of Ohio agriculture.

Tim has won the Oscar for Agricultural Writing, and American Agricultural Editor's annual awards for best editorial and best marketing story. He helped to found the Ohio Agricultural Communicators Association and was president of the North American Agricultural Journalists. In 2001 the National Association of Conservation Districts presented him with the award for the nation's top writer on conservation. The Ohio Farm Bureau recognized him as the state's top communicator in 2005.

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