Converting Continuous Grazing to Management Intensive Grazing: Loess Hills Restoration

Final Report for FNC95-127

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1995: $3,399.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1996
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Reese Homestead Limited is located on the western edge of the Loess Hills, one mile north of Turin, Iowa, and one mile east of the Little Sioux River. Turin is 7 miles east of Onawa, Iowa.

The Homestead contains 90 acres of crop land and 10 acres of pasture below (west of) the road. There are an additional 150 acres of Loess Hills above the road (east of) used as pasture land. In the past 26 years it has been farmed by a tenant on a share-crop basis.

The hills were without trees in the early 1900’s. Since the 1950’s the hill pasture has used for continuous grazing of 25 to 35 cow/calf pairs every summer. This grazing practice, and the fact that the hills have not burned, has contributed to the encroachment of trees into the hill pasture. There are currently about 35 to 40 owned acres that are agriculturally manageable.

The piece of hills adjoining Reese Homestead property to the south has been left fallow over the past 15-20 years. Six years ago a springtime trash fire escaped a backyard in the north edge of Turin, and swept northward through the hills. The part of the pasture that burned had a stand of native grasses: little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass and switch grass. Many of the encroaching trees were killed. The fire sputtered to a halt shortly after it reached Reese Homestead pasture land for lack of flammable undergrowth.

The goal of this grant is to convert 150 acres of Loess Hills, used for the last 45 years as continuous graze pasture for cow/calf pairs, to managed grazing. This will increase the use of vegetation from 30% to 60%, improve calf weight gain, improve conception rate and body condition of cows, provide increased pasture health and production, limit the encroachment of trees, and reclaim the hills as full summer pasture, and enable increase in the size of the herd.

I began managing the grazing in April. I rotated the cattle through 22 acres of winter rye. In May I started rotating them though the hills. Even though I judged it was time to move the cattle, I observed that they left forage (brome and bluegrass) that produced seed heads. I suspect that means that I need to make even smaller paddocks. And graze them more intensively for shorter periods of time. There is no forage that would produce enough dry matter to be worth making into hay. So it is not currently feasible to make hay to keep ahead of the forage.

I managed thistles with a shovel. In June I dug them out. There is a stand of red clover which I wanted to protect. Upon inspection I believe the thistle population is smaller this fall then it was last fall.

The pasture looks to be in better shape this fall than it has in previous falls. In August I began the practice of mowing the paddock immediately after moving the cattle. This eliminated weeds that were left standing and were competing for nutrients and going to seed. The rainfall of the summer may have been responsible for that. I rotated the cattle through the pasture until the middle of October, with no supplementary hay. Then I transferred them to the corn field. In previous years they have consumed hay from mid September to mid October.

I fenced the cattle out of the south end of the pasture. In early July the Iowa Nature Conservancy supplied 7 interns to help control the cedar population. They worked 3 days cutting cedars. That restored a ridge to prairie. I was able to monitor the growth of the prairie for the duration of the summer. In August I saw side oats grama and little blue stem flourish. I have regularly observed them, but not seen them flourish in this manner. I also saw the recurrence of big bluestem and Indian grass. Because the hills have been continuously grazed for the last 50 years I have not seen incidence of these grasses. Because the cattle were fenced out these grasses have returned in one summer! There were also a number of flowers that returned. Blazing star was the most spectacular among them.

In observing the prairie return I began to wonder. “Would this land be more profitable as a prairie seedbed than as pasture?” To answer the question I will need to do some research determine available species, establish market for them, estimate production capacity, labor intensity, equipment costs, and project gross/net income possible. This is not a door that I anticipated opening when I began this project.

I will use the resources and cooperators to create a field day.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.