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SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Disappearing pasture land accelerates

All across Minnesota and the upper Midwest for that matter, pasture land is disappearing. It is not getting sucked up into an alien spaceship or anything like that but it is disappearing nonetheless. What is making it disappear? The answer is some more endless rows of corn and beans.

Seed developers are continuing to refine seed characteristics so these row crops can be grown in poorer soils and in more drought-prone areas. This is great for corn and bean production but bad if you need grass to graze livestock or love grassland wildlife habitat.

Even in the cattle country of South Dakota grasslands are evaporating at a ferocious rate. I read that our neighbor state to the west had lost almost one million acres of grasslands in both 2011 and 2012 that were converted to row crop production. That's two million less acres to pasture cattle on and two million less acres for pheasants to nest in. I predict that although South Dakota will remain the pheasant capital of the world it will never again harvest the pheasant totals that it did 5 years ago. With two million less grassland acres there is just less nesting habitat, and pheasant numbers rise and fall with this number almost like they were linked by a stout chain.

Pasture and grassland loss continues to accelerate and the current outlook shows no sign of slowing. One of the reasons for this is that taxpayer subsidized federal crop insurance pays for losses incurred when row crop plantings on these marginal lands fail. It was pasture in the first place because that was the most suitable use of these light or highly erodible soils.

Grassland losses are not limited to South Dakota. I can drive around all of south west Minnesota and find many pastures that once held cattle now covered with curvy and winding rows of row crop weaving in and out of the bends of the creek that once flowed through the pasture and now flows within a few feet of a crop production field.

There were thousands of CRP grassland acres in Minnesota that were grazed or hayed under an emergency order last fall that provided a buffer against severe feed/hay shortages. What would have happened if these CRP acres did not exist during the drought? We will soon know as these CRP grassland acres are going under the plow for a higher rate of return in row crop production faster than the rate of evaporation.

As pasture lands are converted to row crop production, what is a livestock producer to do? Cattle producers could convert their high quality farm land from row crop back to grassland, but good farmland at $10,000 per acre cannot even come close to being cash flowed and will never again be returned to grass. They could buy marginal land and convert it back to pasture but even marginal land is so costly now in the time of record commodity prices that this is also not cost effective.

With dwindling pasture acres and no cost effective way to produce more grassland what is the livestock industry to do? The easy answer is to have the big farm lobbies look where other non-crop grasslands exist. The easy target for big AG lobbies is the public land base in Minnesota's Wildlife Management Areas. These are primarily grassland areas that conservation organizations, hunters and the public have preserved for wildlife, water quality benefits, reduced flooding and are maintained with money raised from license fees that hunters pay. Hunters pay the freight to maintain these public lands.

Less than 3 percent of southwest Minnesota Counties are in permanently protected grasslands. Of that amount, public lands account for most of that total. In many areas these are the only acres that wildlife can live, reproduce and then survive our difficult winters. Without WMA's acting as habitat oases in an otherwise land of black there would be little to no wildlife in many of these areas at all.

There is a big move afoot and much political pressure applied by the major farm lobbies to open public hunting lands to grazing by private producers under the umbrella of habitat management. The Minnesota legislature even bowed to this political pressure last year and ordered the DNR to open 50,000 acres of public lands to private operators to graze cattle on. There has never been a wildlife habitat management idea hatched that is worse than this one.

It is wrong from a wildlife point of view for a whole list of reasons and I could cover the next two months of columns to explain them all, but let's look at the biggest and baddest of the issues. First is that fire is the best way to manage prairie grassland landscapes. It rejuvenates grasses and controls invasive species. In Farm Country these fire management tools are easy to use and are very cost-effective. Cattle's grazing, on the other hand, is supposed to mimic the movement of buffalo whose hooves beat up the ground and stimulated vegetation growth. Cattle will never be buffalo. Buffalo herds never spent more than a short time in any one place. Cattle will congregate in a very small part of the pasture near the water source and turn it into nothing but dirt. They also wade around in any wetland on the property until it is destroyed.

In order for this to have any slim chance of working the land would need to be fenced into separate parcels called paddocks. Cattle would need to be moved every few days to a new paddock and every paddock would need its own water source. Under ideal management the grass would be utilized for a very short period and allowed to recover to a height beneficial to wildlife before fall. I, for one, don't think I would like any WMA's crossed eight different times with an electric fence or barbed wire and have a water tank in every paddock. How would hunters and other users be able to navigate through all that wire?

If history is any guide, the costs of the fence and water infrastructure would be covered by limited wildlife management resources and any limited income is used to expand this program. I wrote once about grazing on federal land in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in central South Dakota. There the operator pays $1.60 per animal unit to graze on taxpayer owned lands when the corresponding rate for private owned pasture land as over $25 per animal unit. Grazing on public WMA lands I believe would follow this same one sided template.

There are many other organizations that have tried to use grazing as a management tool and every site that I have monitored over the years is over grazed and offers little to no wildlife benefit over the long term. A grazed pasture cannot look like a golf green and still benefit wildlife.

Once the door is opened to grazing public lands like WMA's the wildlife habitat benefits that these areas were created for will be forever lost. The costs of the infrastructure to do so will be cost-prohibitive but the government agencies that will allow it rarely care and wildlife will suffer as a result.

I gladly call myself a die-hard beef eater. Big fat sirloin steaks from W-2's can regularly be found on my grill. I support the beef industry. I just think grazing on the very limited amounts of grassland left on public hunting areas is a very bad idea.