Improving Wetlands Using Holistic Grazing of Dairy Cattle and Low Impact Crossings

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2015: $7,216.00
Projected End Date: 02/15/2017
Grant Recipient: Darby Springs Farm
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
Crystal Powers
Darby Springs Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products

Carbon Farming presentation (Conference/Presentation Material)
Wetlands grazing presentation (Conference/Presentation Material)
Farm and wetland scavenger hunt (Conference/Presentation Material)


  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: grazing management

    Proposal summary:


    In the North Central region there are over 20 million acres of remaining wetlands with many of these being wet meadows and shallow marshes. The tallgrass prairie and scattered wetlands of the Great Plains evolved with intense disturbance from fire, downpours, drought, and herds of large herbivores that grazed and trampled them. Without these disturbances both upland and wetland vegetation will shift from more diverse plant communities to more late-stage monocultures of invasive plant species. In wetlands, these invasive plants, such as cattail and river bulrush, tend to overrun the wetlands making it less suitable for many other plants and wildlife. This is a common problem for wetland managers and is the case on our property where a large monoculture of cattails dominates nearly 15 acres of wetlands that we have previously not been grazing.

    Sustainable agriculture is about using systems that optimize productivity with ecosystem services. Research is showing that properly managed grazing by cattle can appropriately disturb wetlands and the surrounding uplands to create a healthier ecosystem that balances sustainable agriculture with ecosystem services. The key factor is timing of the grazing to balance livestock nutrition, plant growth, wildlife needs, and labor available. However, this research has not used Holistic Management principles and few farmers of the region intensively manage their wetland areas, most either fence livestock out or allow free access.

    Most management in the region’s wetlands has also focused on beef cattle. Dairy cattle need walkways for daily access to the milking parlor. If unmanaged, these walkways will quickly become deep mud in the wetlands causing damage to wetland soils and stress to the cows from slipping and sticking in the mud.

    We will extend our Holistic Management grazing planning to the wetlands, to properly time the cattle grazing, which incorporates quick moves, from 12hr to 3 days, with long rest periods, of 30 days to one year. This system uses biological monitoring of the cattle, plants, and wildlife to provide feedback for decision-making about timing, intensity, durations, and rest for grazing. The plan will be monitored throughout the year, as laid out in the timeline, for livestock performance, forage value, and ecosystem changes.

    To manage the walkways, we will install low impact wetland crossings to minimize stress to both the cattle and the wetland soils. As our wetlands are at the most six inches deep, these crossings can be basic boardwalks that do not impact the soils or water flow. Boardwalks will be made of pressure treated wood on top of concrete block, 36” wide and long enough to cross the wetland at the narrowest crossing points. These type of crossings could be used by farmers throughout the region where livestock need to make frequent crossings of shallow perennial wet areas.

    A secondary benefit of putting in boardwalks is the ability for farm visitors to explore the wetlands and see our sustainable agriculture methods in practice, helping us connect people with where their food comes from and how it can be raised in ways that bring together agriculture and conservation goals.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Test the effect of holistic cattle grazing practices and low impact crossings on wetlands ecosystem health.
    2. Monitor plant and wildlife, including invasive species, in the wetlands to determine any positive or negative ecological effects of grazing.
    3. Determine economic benefits of this systems including the cost of labor for maintaining this grazing system and amount of forage available for cattle.
    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.