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Project adds biodiversity on public lands

By Staff | Nov 4, 2010

Eric Finch, of State Center, watches his herd of goats last August as they make their way from a trailer to a public land pasture. The Polk County Conservation Board opened that land for grazing so the goats would eat invasive plant species.

MAXWELL – Loren Lown manages parks and green spaces and Bruce Carney raises cattle.

Typically their paths would not cross, but at the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt near Maxwell in Polk County, they work together in a public-private partnership that uses farm animals to restore and rejuvenate prairies and oak savanna along the Skunk River.

“I just thought it was an interesting project because of the collaboration between county agencies and a local farmer,” said Carney, who owns a cow-calf operation south of Maxwell. “I guess I’m just trying to get along and see how we can meet each other’s needs and show that grazing can be a part of conservation as well.”

A multiyear project, funded by a competitive grant from the Ecology Initiative of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, teams public agencies with Iowa farmers who own goat and cattle herds.

The goats eat invasive plants and shrubs which cause problems on public land, while cattle provide native grass management. This allows herd owners time to interseed, stockpile forage or hay, build new fences or rest their home pastures for optimum grazing conditions.

Bruce Carney, a cow-calf cattle producer from Maxwell, is another producer who works with the Polk County Conservation Board helping to control grasslands on public-held land.

These concepts and other opportunities are discussed on three new videos about the project called, On the Ground with the Leopold Center.

Lown is a natural resource specialist for the Polk County Conservation Board, which manages a 7,300-acre greenbelt along the Skunk River.

The area has a small campground, but changes in land use and logging for railroad timber has destroyed the area’s historical wetland, woodland and oak savanna habitats.

Invasive species such as buckthorn, reed canary and switch grass need to be controlled in order for other species to compete.

“Our project boils down to this question: ‘Can we graze and browse cattle and goats on natural areas and restore them to a more natural state while providing quality forage for domestic animals?'” Lown said.

The Chichaqua project involves 460 acres that have been grazed during the past two summers. A herd of 31 goats is owned by Deb and Eric Finch, of State Center; a 100-head cow-calf pairs are owned by Carney and his neighbor Jeff Boyd.

The goats primarily browse, which means they eat most everything including twigs and branches, which also helps to clean up the land.

The cattle graze on non-native grass species in the reconstructed prairie, which allows other types of plant growth and forage production.

“By bringing them [the goats] down here it’s been a benefit. We can get them on browse and get them off of those pastures that we’ve had troubles with, and those pastures can sit and can rest,” said Deb Finch.

Goats are valuable because they eat almost every invasive plant species. So when the invasive plants are gone, native plants can flourish and complete a natural life cycle.

The project also helps farmers by giving them access to additional land that can be grazed while they grow a late-season stockpile or hay crop on their own land for winter feed.

“We’re losing a lot of pasture acres to corn production, so we really need to find new areas for pasture,” Carney said.

Jeri Neal, who works with the Leopold Center’s Ecology Initiative, said land management and access to grazing land are critical issues for both public land managers and farmers trying to integrate livestock into their operations.

“We want to create a win-win situation for all partners,” she said. “This project is important to Iowans because it explores an innovative way to bring together public and private interests while providing benefits for both people and the environment.”

The Leopold Center grant was awarded to Iowa Heartland Resource Conservation and Development, a locally-led nonprofit affiliated with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Other partners include Practical Farmers of Iowa, which helped with a field day in August; Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, for partial funding of fence materials; two Drake University scientists researching the impact on diversity; and Iowa State University Extension and NRCS specialists, for grazing and livestock management assistance.

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