A Grazier’s Gaze Over Grasslands

Chad Mitchell, owner and CEO of Levity Land Management.

By Chad Mitchell, Founder & CEO of Levity Land Management

Pepperwood Preserve has a rich tradition of working with forward-thinking ranchers to use grazing and animal impact (the trampling and dunging done by the animals) as tools on the landscape for ecological benefit. This is the second instance I have been fortunate enough to visit Pepperwood and contribute to the grazing effort, both times from late winter to early spring.

As spring peaks around the corner, I have a front-row seat to new life emerging on the preserve. The sun has just begun to show every day. Winter rains flowing through the grasses have been replaced by spider webs strung between the leaves and critters darting beneath the canopy.

The birds are omnipresent. I watch them in the sky as I hike across mountain meadows. They startle me, making a racket when exploding from a tree canopy. I met a red-headed woodpecker and love the way little blue birds look standing on our white fence posts.

A familiar flock of turkeys trot around the preserve. They will soon follow the cattle, feasting on the bugs and grubs thriving on pies of fermented forage. I witness raptors soaring often and hunting on occasion. After hearing its scream I look to find it perched atop a hilltop oak. The deer have been here as well, rain or shine, and the coyotes are always “just leaving.”

The days are warming and so is the earth beneath my feet. I swear I can feel the grass growing, or maybe it’s just the sun on my face. Today I saw a frog so tiny it was standing on a single stem of dead grass. Flying insects are beginning to buzz. I imagine the avian orchestra with its spring additions, a growing season symphony.

I try to imagine the underground herd of microscopic critters I cannot see. Life must surge through their world as grasses and forbs photosynthesize and seep sugars into the soil through their roots. Hundreds of millions of microorganisms live their lives here, feeding on the sugars provided by the plants. Fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and micro-arthropods are cycling nutrients, making them available to growing plants. They live, move, eat, produce waste, reproduce, and die. As their populations rise, our soils deepen.

While these grasslands house and feed this underground herd, so will they host a herd of cattle above. Through its partnership with Markegard Family Grass-Fed, Pepperwood participates in a most ancient and resilient form of agriculture, raising animal protein on native, perennial pastures. The goal of grassland stewardship is to champion the land as it brings forth all forms of life.

To care for the grasses and forbs, we must not forget the herd we cannot see. It has been said that a grazier must love their grass more than their cattle and love their soil more than their grass. Grazing is only an element of ranching, yet it is infinitely complex and intertwined with natural systems. It is something I will never completely understand.

Through the art of grazing, I have learned that we are not the intelligent ones. Rather, we are just small pieces of an incredibly intelligent system. I ask myself, “How can I be helpful?” Through observation, curiosity, and care, others have rediscovered how we can help our cattle to bolster the natural beauty surrounding them.

A belted Galloway cow, part of the herd owned and operated by Markegard Family Grass-Fed – the company that partners with Pepperwood via their conservation grazing program. Photo courtesy of Ian Nelson.

Like herdsmen of old, shepherds and cowboys, we manage the movement of our animals. Using temporary electric fences, we aim to influence time. The amount of time beasts spend on plants and the time plants have to recover before being grazed again. With every electric fence built, grazing periods shorten and more recovery time is accumulated.

We built a grazing plan around these recovery periods and the cattle set out to mow, fertilize, and aerate the preserve’s grasslands. The herd will visit some pastures on multiple occasions, but never stay too long. We plan to leave plenty of green leaves behind so the plants can continue to photosynthesize and rebuild more quickly, increasing energy flow through the system at large.

Plants will continue to feed the microorganisms that are helping them to grow, trading sugars for nutrients as their roots reach deeper into the soil horizon. These roots will allow for rain to percolate into the soil rather than run off of it. As the plants and microorganisms barter below and the cattle trample above, organic matter is built into the soil structure. This organic matter allows the soil to hold the water it has captured like a sponge, remaining available to plants and microbiology longer.

The seasonal growth of the grasslands will eventually begin to slow and the cattle herd will leave the preserve. Their work will have helped to turn more sunlight into nutrients and habitat above and below ground. Their presence will help for more of the winter rains to soak into soils that hold them tight. We hope their efforts will contribute to more diverse and abundant life emerging from the preserve year after year. And most of all, I hope these steers enjoy their visit to Pepperwood Preserve as much as I always do.

About the Author

Chad Mitchell is a rambling grazier, climbing arborist, and entrepreneur who has been blessed with opportunities to work on beautiful and diverse landscapes around the country. His work has taken him from south Georgia to northern California, from the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Through his business, Levity Land Management, he works with land and livestock owners to implement holistic land management practices for ecological benefit, animal welfare, and ranching profitability. Chad is grateful to work with plants, animals, and people in places that feel wild to him. His diversity of experience has helped him to better understand holistic management principles as they apply to varying contexts and ecoregions. In addition to spending his spring at Pepperwood in 2024, he will spend six months in Gunnison, CO helping to manage hundreds of cattle on tens of thousands of acres. He will also spend time in Costa Rica helping to maintain a rainforest canopy as a climbing arborist. Like the animals he manages, Chad stays on the mooove.

Post a comment

Traducir »