The drought of 2021 challenged livestock farmers with producing and finding enough pasture for their grazing animals.
One option that Minnesota farmers might want to explore is conservation grazing on public lands.
Both federal- and state-owned land can use livestock for management, says Kelley Anderson, livestock and grazing specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. State-owned land available for grazing is usually a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), and federal land is usually a Waterfowl Production Area (WPA), she says.
“However, there are different programs under both state and federal ownership that might use grazing as management,” Anderson says. “State parks or U.S. Forest Service are two additional examples. WMAs and WPAs are both managed for wildlife, but WPAs tend to have a special focus on waterfowl, so they almost always have some surface water on them.” Anderson points out that this can be handy when providing water to livestock. Other than that, the only differences are in who administers the program and the kind of objectives the agencies are trying to achieve.
MDA has an interagency contract to provide grazing plan assistance to the DNR; hence, Anderson’s role.
“Nearly every [DNR] office has more work they’d like to get done than staff to complete it,” Anderson says. “I help DNR staff do some of the paperwork and get a plan put together that will help them meet their objectives, while still being manageable for the livestock producer.”
Conservation grazing goals
Conservation grazing is a win-win for both public lands and livestock farmers. The main goal with public programs is to manage grazing livestock in a manner that improves and maintains wildlife and plant habitat. Grazing, along with burning and haying, provides the ecological disturbance that is necessary to keep prairies and ecosystems healthy. Opening public land to grazing offers additional options to farmers who need forage for their livestock.
“When done properly, grazing and wildlife can coexist very well together,” Anderson says.
Every area of the state is managed locally by an area wildlife manager, and Anderson suggests getting to know that person if you are interested in grazing public lands.
“Let them know how you run your operation and what you’re willing to do as far as fencing, watering or moving cattle,” she says. Be prepared to help educate the land manager, particularly about fencing and watering options.
To find contact information for land managers in your area online, visit the MDA conservation grazing map.
Keep in mind that public land grazing opportunities vary greatly across the state and are not available in all areas. In some cases, you may need to bid on grazing a certain piece of land. Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 state acres are available for public grazing, Anderson adds.
Public grazing basics
State WMAs are marked with yellow signs. They are managed by Minnesota DNR and are open to public hunting. WPAs, also open to public hunting, are marked with green and white signs. They are managed by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service.
Land managers work with farmers to determine stocking rate, density, timing and grazing duration need to support habitat goals. Since most public land is not fenced and doesn’t have electricity, farmers will need to install temporary fencing or repair existing fences.
Grazing fees are determined by the office managing the land and are usually based on Farm Service Agency-reported average pasture rental rates. A farmer might be able to offset these fees, depending on the amount of work required to install fences, provide water and move livestock.
“An electrified two-strand wire fence on fiberglass posts is the minimum allowed for a temporary perimeter fence on most DNR land. In my experience, this is pretty similar to what USFWS uses,” Anderson says. “Some managers will want a more robust fence. If it is a permanent fence, it will need to be at least four strands. Areas next to busy highways or with lots of foot traffic might have other requirements such as additional wires, signs or gates.”
Deductions from grazing fees depend on the work a farmer does. For example, putting up and taking down temporary fence can earn them 5 center to 15 cents per foot, depending on how difficult it is, Anderson notes.
Most agencies who manage public land require farmers to carry $1 million in liability insurance coverage to protect against claims of injury and/or death.
Walking the talk
Anderson has firsthand experience with grazing public lands. Her family lives west of Lowry, Minn., and has a 150-cow commercial Angus herd. The family started grazing a USFWS Waterfowl Production Area before she started working with MDA.
“Seeing the improvements grazing made on the public land near us is what really got me interested in seeing the tool used more widely across the state,” she says. “The most noticeable difference is the diversity in the plant species I see in the prairie areas. There are some really neat flowers showing up that weren’t there before. The cattle have also helped to clean up some of the understory brush in the wooded areas to make it easier to walk through.” She credits USFWS land manager JB Bright in the Morris district for sharing his grazing knowledge with her and for promoting the practice in the area.
Obviously, livestock grazing plans must be written to avoid hunting seasons. Anderson likes to work on fall grazing plans for public land that can’t be hunted, because fall is a good time to graze land to improve plant diversity, set back undesirable woody plants and target reed canarygrass and smooth brome that are hard to control. That said, most public land managed by the DNR is, first and foremost, wildlife land and is used heavily for hunting.
“We will occasionally overlap the early goose season and dove season in mid-August, since those don’t draw as many hunters,” Anderson says. “When we do graze into those seasons, it’s on a small part of a larger tract. There’s always ungrazed public land close by for hunters to use.”
Public land grazing typically happens between May 1 and Sept. 1, she says.
Overall, public grazing programs are designed to have as little impact on the hunting community as possible. Temporary fences are removed prior to hunting season, and permanent fences are designed to be dog- and hunter-friendly. Barbed wire is avoided, and gates are installed near parking areas.
Hunters can see the benefits of grazing when they return in the fall.
“In the end, grazing is a disturbance to the land similar to fire or mowing,” Anderson says, “and disturbance is necessary to keep prairie healthy.”