The Mancos Public Library started a new series of agriculture seminars on Wednesday with two different perspectives on grazing land.
Cattle rancher Dustin Stein and U.S. Forest Service agent Heather Musclow spoke to about a dozen farmers about the best ways to maximize efficient grazing on public and private land. Stein spoke from his experience of grazing cattle on his private pastures, while Musclow spoke about what the public grazing permit process is like from her agency’s perspective. Library manager Shari Dunn, who organized the event, hopes it will be the first of many seminars for farmers in Mancos.
Stein owns Stubborn Farm, one of the suppliers for Cortez restaurant The Farm Bistro, and grazes about 75 head of cattle on private land. Although he said he felt “a little embarrassed” to speak to a room full of farmers who had developed their own grazing techniques over several years in the industry, he spent about half an hour discussing the best ways to keep cattle fed without overgrazing.
“Over time, even one cow on three acres will kill not only individual plants, but eventually impact the entire three acres,” he said.
He recommended farmers use at least six different grazing areas for their cattle, and move the herd to a new one every 10 days. That gives the plants in each field enough time to grow back and put down strong roots in between grazing periods, Stein said. He warned farmers to be on the lookout for symptoms of overgrazing like bare patches on the ground, shorter grasses and increased amounts of erosion or standing water.
Producers who don’t have public grazing permits are often limited in the number of places they can allow their animals to graze. Although every producer’s situation is different, Stein gave cover crops as one example of a way to create more grazing opportunities, especially for crop farmers who go the no-till route. But he did acknowledge that planting cover crops comes with certain risks, and encouraged his audience to do more research before deciding on a technique.
Farmers who don’t own their own grazing land can buy grazing permits from the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. Musclow’s part of the presentation went over the history of public land grazing in Montezuma County and the challenges both producers and federal agencies face in protecting the land and the animals on it.
“Being on public lands, we manage for a variety of uses, and sometimes those uses aren’t necessarily compatible,” she said. “We think they can be, but it depends on the individual.”
Right now there are 47 permittees in Montezuma County who share 36 grazing allotments–one for sheep and 35 for cattle. They pay $1.87 per animal per month, and are required to regularly rotate their herds in a manner similar to the one Stein described. The permittees are also responsible for the maintenance of their alloted land, including fence repairs and the elimination of noxious weeds.
Musclow described several problems the Forest Service deals with on a regular basis, from drought conditions to accidents caused by cows on public roads. She described some of the ways the agency tries to combat these problems, such as building “cow camps” to make it easier for owners to supervise their grazing herds, setting controlled burns and monitoring for noxious weeds. But she said it’s important for grazing permittees and others to work with her agency to keep grazing lands habitable.
“We like to bring people to the table,” she said. “It’s good for grazing permittees and environmental organizations and recreationists and all the different people using the forest to come together and say, ‘You guys are real people, we’re real people. How can we get together and make it work for all of us?’”
After the presentations, Stein and Musclow answered questions from the farmers in attendance, most of which had to do with how to combat noxious weeds and whether it’s cheaper to graze on private or public land. Everyone who spoke up agreed that grazing on private land is more cost-effective, but it’s also difficult in Montezuma County, where available land is scarce. Musclow said she has never seen anyone give up a grazing permit because of the cost.
Dunn ended the night by asking for suggestions on future topics for the library’s agriculture seminars.
“We can’t just serve up a program that we think you might like to hear about,” she said. “We need to know what you want and need.”
The next seminar, scheduled for March 21, will focus on controlling noxious weeds.